What is it with this seemingly never ending queue of very wealthy people and celebrities, without a shred of shame, self-awareness or knowledge of socio-economics, that they nonetheless feel it’s quite okay “to have dispensed with generosity in order to practice ‘charity'”, to pinch a phrase from Albert Camus.
Jamie Oliver claimed that he couldn’t quite grasp poverty in the UK, where people made choices between “massive TVs” and nutritious food. I can’t help wondering how many poor people Oliver has taken the time and trouble to visit, but I concluded he prefers to deal in hand-me-down, shabby clichés rather than homespun truths. More recently, Michael Gove suggested that the rise in people accessing food banks was a result of poor financial management, rather than it being due to “genuine need” because of a massive hike in the cost of living and subsequent plummeting living standards, rising unemployment, low wages, savage benefit cuts, and brutal, targeted benefit sanctions.
The very wealthy Lord Freud claimed that families using food banks were simply looking for “free meals”, and this was not “causally connected” to increased poverty due to austerity cuts. Conservative Environment Minister Richard Ponsonby – and hereditary peer – the 7th Baron De Mauley – has advised the poor to reconsider their buying habits and resist the temptation to spend more money on the latest electronic gadgets, clothes and “food that they will not eat” in efforts to recapture the war-time spirit of “make, do and mend”.
So, the poor are being handed cognitive behaviour strategies and instructions from the wealthy, dressed up as common sense, with the emphasis being on self-management – there is an implicit assumption here that poor people require a psychotherapeutic approach to material hardship that is usually reserved for addressing dysfunctional emotions, maladaptive behaviours and cognitive processes. The solution to poverty, according to these socially inept rich people is behaviour modification for the poor, and not coincidently, the philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers. The subtext of this raft of advice for the alienated poor from the aloof wealthy is: endure your pain and penury without a display of feelings and without complaint. Because we really don’t want to hear about it.
However, a central theme in Stoicism is that humans possess a unique capacity to be rational and self-autonomous and this remains a powerful defence of democracy, equality and human rights. The Stoics directed us to think clearly and rationally about the idea of living in harmony with the way the universe is, but they didn’t say anything about accepting social inequalities as a fundamental part of that universe or conflating what is with what ought to be.
The idea of stoic “self-help” is a useful reference point in any discussion of Victorian culture and values. As a moral crusader and proponent of that idea, Samuel Smiles has become something of right wing icon: any mention of him is commonly taken to imply a well-known and easily identified set of values.
In Thrift, which was published in 1875, Samuel Smiles declared: “riches do not constitute any claim to distinction. It is only the vulgar who admire riches as riches”.
I think it’s the rich that admire riches as riches. And being poor is a dismal experience. Regarding those that have all of the wealth as vulgar offers no comfort at all from material hardship, hunger and destitution.
Smiles was a very popular Victoria moralist. He claimed that the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, which punished the poor in order to cure them of their poverty habits, was “one of the most valuable that has been placed on the statute-book in modern times”. In Self-Help, which I read as an apology for Victorian middle class values, he said:
“No laws, however stringent, can make the idle industrious, the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober. Such reforms can only be effected by means of individual action, economy and self-denial; by better habits, rather than by greater rights”.
Thrift and Self-Help were Victorian bibles, and although Smiles was a critic of many conventional middle class values, what an irony it is that the man who argued in favour of nationalising the railways in 1868, should get sufficiently warped by history to emerge as the champion and much admired historical figure for the Tories during the 1980s. This said, Smiles did have conservative credentials, with his liking for the Poor Law Reform Act, and his intrusive advice to the poor about how to manage poverty their better and with some “character”, whilst practising self-denial.
Smiles basically argued that individuals could and should improve themselves through hard work, thrift, self-discipline, education, and “moral improvement” and should not seek the help of Government. He was Thatcher’s darling and is Cameron’s formative hero.
The idea of distinguishing between different categories of the poor, dividing them up into discrete and manageable groups, is almost as old as the British state. The paternalistic Elizabethan poor laws were originally designed to keep the poor at home – to stop them from becoming vagrants. However, the insistent Utilitarians of the day decided that a great deal of poverty was not inevitable as a by-product of socio-economic and political conditions, but rather, it was a product of fecklessness. Thomas Malthus, Herbert Spencer and others argued from a social Darwinist perspective, claiming that the Elizabethan poor law encouraged irresponsibly large families, idleness and personal fecklessness.
This was the “responsibilisation” of poverty that resulted in the introduction of the punitive workhouse, as we know – a place where paupers would be incarcerated and forced to labour. At the core of the Poor Law Reform Act was the notion of less eligibility: reducing the number of people entitled to support, so that only those who could not work (rather than those who “would not” work) would receive support.
It’s here that the distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor became a legal one. Nowadays, savage cuts, sanctions and benefit “conditionality” may be seen as a parallel of the principle of less eligibility. The Poor Law reform also “made work pay”. Those who could not work were deterred from applying for poor law support, as workhouses were made deliberately so unpleasant, often resembling a prison more than a refuge. Many critics of the day condemned them as “the new Bastilles”. As we passed the celebration the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens, we are witnessing a return of precisely the sort of language about the poor that he did so much to expose as cruel and inhuman.
Narratives of “welfare dependency” have once again become much more common place and increasingly assertive under the coalition Government – embedded in narratives driven by the the so-called Skivers and Strivers dichotomy. Poverty, according to this distinctly Tory perspective, is caused by a culture of deviance, idleness and dependency. The poor are responsible for their poverty. They cannot be trusted to be responsible, or make the right choices for themselves – or society more generally – and so are in need of “paternalistic guidelines” and cognitive behaviour therapy. Poverty has been “re-responsiblised”.
In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argued that Puritan ethics and ideas influenced the development of capitalism. Ideas that work is “virtuous” can be traced back to the Reformation, when even the most humble professions were regarded as adding to the common good and thus blessed by God, as much as any “sacred” calling. A common illustration of the time is that of a cobbler, hunched over his work, who devotes his entire effort to the praise of God.
To explain the work ethic, Weber shows that certain branches of Protestantism had supported worldly activities dedicated to deferred gratification and economic gain, seeing them as being endowed with moral and spiritual significance.
This recognition was not a goal in itself, but rather a by-product or unintended consequence of other doctrines of faith that encouraged planning, hard work and self-denial in the pursuit of worldly wealth. For the Tories, the competitive pursuit of economic gain is the only freedom worth having. And only those that have gained substantially have freedoms worth having. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that this social Darwinist approach to socio-economics means unbridled private business, insidious systematic indoctrination, gross exploitation of the masses and political extortion.
Ayn Rand, another Tory idol, who endorsed minarchism and laissez-faire capitalism and gave her full approval to selfishness, used a moral syntax that has been linked with fascism. She advocated rational and ethical egoism and rejected ethical altruism. She was derisory, and wrong because there is a “moral and political obligation of the individual to sacrifice at least some of his/her own interests for the sake of a greater social good.”
The alternative, as Rand would have it, is most people being regimented into a slave caste to serve a handful of self-seeking, power hungry greedy psychopaths. Alas, for it seems we will always have the despotic wealthy with us – a lofty, discrete and detached class of tyrants, loudly dismissing inconvenient truths, and not just about the poor.
The social, economical and psychological distance between those with great amounts of money, power and a voice would span cosmological distances when compared to the poor. A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to a person who is suffering. We always have the opportunity to help the poorest and most vulnerable. But the rich are not getting richer whilst the poor get poorer: the rich are getting richer by the poor getting poorer. There’s a chasmic conflict of interest between the rich persons’ selfish, individual goals and collective societal values.
There is a clear lack of compassionate thought and action amongst the anti-social wealthy elitist Government, and their policies are dogmatic, brutal and tipped heavily towards supporting the powerful, whilst punishing the poor. Homo economicus is a conservative, self-serving and wretched, mythologising miser.
The UN’s 2013 Human Development Report has also noted that the “gap between rich and poor in UK society has risen sharply” since the Coalition government took power. The UN reports that there is greater inequality in the UK than in other countries in Western Europe. It is also noted that the market has not stepped in where institutions have failed: “Markets are very bad at ensuring the provision of public goods, such as security, stability, health and education”, the report reads. I don’t think we ought to be stoically accepting any of this as simply “the way things are”.
Entire lives, human experiences are being reduced to cheap tabloidisms, nasty political soundbites and wildly disgusting, politically convenient stereotypical generalisations that don’t stand up to very much scrutiny. There isn’t an ounce of genuine philanthropy to be had in these sanctimonious tirades, just frank stereotyping, the frequent mention of plasma screen TVs, (something that the bourgeoisie popularised when they rushed out to buy them when they first hit the market: they were dubbed the new wall mounted “4 wheel drives” of the living room, before they became sufficiently cheap for poorer members of society to buy) and a lot of judgement about the perceived lifestyle choices of the poor.
Benefits were calculated to meet only basic survival needs – food, fuel and shelter. If people manage to buy more than that on benefits, then kudos to themfor their budgeting skills. Osborne could learn a lesson or two from these people. But of course the truth is that people move in and out of work, and it would be unreasonable to expect them to dispose of those goods that they bought when they were employed, simply to satisfy an increasingly spiteful, judgemental class, that seems to think that poor people should have nothing at all, living a life of utter misery.
We are told what to buy, what not to buy, how to eat, and how to mend, make do, and go without.
Go without? Isn’t that what poverty is all about? The poor are experts in “going without”, social exclusion and isolation. Nonetheless, the Government have erected a media platform for the idle rich to moralise about what we should and shouldn’t be spending our meagre finances on. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce the new lifestyle police. The Government are telling us how we may and may not live our private lives, and how we ought to “manage” our poverty better.
And lies about poverty, its causes, effects and solutions, infects almost everything Iain Duncan Smith says, as he formulates pseudo-moral justifications for the hardship his Government’s own policies are causing. The media propaganda machine oblige him very well with screaming misinformation about the feckless poor. Poverty, he would have us believe, is down to individual faults and personal deficits. Again.
Only a half-wit would believe that in order to “make work pay”, rather than raise the lowest wages, we remove lifeline benefits from the very poorest. Bearing in mind that those benefits were carefully calculated by previous Governments to meet basic costs for survival needs: food, fuel and shelter: “the amount the law says you need to live on”. Apparently, this protective law no longer applies.
The Tories are constantly lowering public expectations and defending the indefensible.
And if there is one thing that melds Cameron’s sparse, ever shrinking and handouts-for-the-boys highly privatised nightwatchman state brand of victoriaphile conservatism together, it is the belief that poverty is best left to wealthy individuals to remedy, rather than Government. His Big Society approach to social provision can perhaps best be summed up with the phrase: “you’re on your own, because we took your money and we don’t care”. On your marks … it’s a race to the very bottom.
It has been too easy for the Tory-led Government to sell the concept of welfare “reforms” (cuts) based on a simple narrative about of “welfare scroungers” getting “something for nothing” whilst the rest of us have to work hard to pay for it, to an apathetic public. This kind of narrative is deliberately designed to stimulate a strong sense of injustice, cause divisions and generate anger. The fact that benefit fraud in reality represents a tiny fraction of the welfare system and that the vast majority of claimants have pre-paid into the system via taxation before becoming unemployed are carefully omitted in order to create the impression that the “scrounger” problem is much worse than it actually is. 0.6% of all claims were deemed to be “fraudulent”, and many of those were actually errors on the part of the Department of Work and Pensions in dealing with legitimate claims.
The real “culture of entitlement” is not to be found amongst the poor, the unemployed, the sick and disabled, as this Government would have you believe. As a matter of fact, most amongst this politically minoritized social group have paid tax and paid for the provision that they ought to be able to rely on when they/we have need of it, it’s ours, after all. The real culture of entitlement comes from the very wealthy, and is well-fed and sustained by our aristocratic and authoritarian Government.
Every time we have periods of high unemployment, growing inequalities, substantial increases in poverty, and loss of protective rights, there is a Conservative Administration behind this wilful destruction of people’s lives, and the unravelling of many years of essential social progress and civilised development that spans more than one century. And that development was fought for and won.
We never see celebrities in the media questioning the fact that we only ever see the rise of the welfare “scrounger” and a “culture of dependency” when we have a Tory Government. And that it also coincides every time with a significant increase in politically manufactured unemployment, a rise in the cost of living, lower working conditions and wages. There’s a connection there somewhere, isn’t there? It seems the likes of Jamie Oliver and Richard Ponsonsby don’t do joined up thinking. And we know from history that the Tories never have.
Public understanding is being purposefully distorted and the reality of society’s organisation is concealed to serve the interests of an elite, through a process of ideological hegemony – whereby existing political arrangements, ways of thinking and social organisation are tacitly accepted as logical and “common sense”. The media serve as ideological state apparatus that transmit this “common sense”. The truth is that poor people are the victims of gross inequality and crass exploitation. Our once progressive, civilised society is being savagely dismantled, and the Tories are steadily and clumsily re-assembling it using identikit Victoriana.
We are seeing a generation of our young people silenced at the margins of society, they are being fed a steady drip of subliminal messages about the worthlessness and steady bastardisation of their labour. Unemployment was statistically eradicated among 16- and 17-year-olds in the 1980s when the Tories changed the law so that school leavers could not claim unemployment benefit. Out of sight and out of mind. This is now being mooted for all young people up to the age of 25.
The Prime Minister began discussion of cutting housing benefits for “feckless” under-25s last year. Consequently, following this Tory “logic”, the UK could soon have the lowest youth unemployment rate in Europe. If we keep moving in that direction we could have a rate as low as the one in India today, or in Britain in the 1800’s, when there was no such thing as unemployment, because we chose back then to call people with no jobs “paupers”. And people were paupers because they were idle and feckless, and incapable of helping themselves. It’s common sense, right?
No. It’s propaganda.
If we are prepared to even entertain any finger-pointing distraction and discussion about the “undeserving poor”, let us also point back, and balance the debate with a fair, realistic discussion of the “undeserving rich”, too.
It is the very rich that need to manage their personal fortunes better in order to stop inflicting poverty on thousands. They need to learn how to go without, make do and mend. They need to stop greedily gathering and hoarding our wealth and frittering tax payers money on extravagant, selfish lifestyles. The wealthy need to pay close attention to the steady destruction of our society, the removal of our civilised and protective services – paid for via our taxes – and the subsequent loss of a dignified future for so many.
I resent the intrusion of hypocritical, greedy rich “moral” crusaders with no scruples whatsoever, or restraint, when it comes to stigmatising the poor, smugly telling poor people they must endure their poverty better, manage their meagre incomes and lack of resources with resilience and resourcefulness that they themselves lack, basically because rich people want to avoid feeling any social responsibility whatsoever. These indignant, self-legitimising, babbling psychopaths want to keep the wealth which was gained at our expense.
The scrounging rich have had it far too good for far too long. It’s about time these idle takers took some responsibility for the society they have taken so much from. I want to hear about how they will repay their much greater debt. I want to hear about their culture of entitlement, and why they believe that they can have everything whilst increasingly, so many have nothing. And with poverty and inequality on the increase, I want to hear about how the wealthy intend to do something directly to remedy this. Because we know that poverty is caused through a gross inequality in wealth distribution.
Lord Ponsonby is very rich because other people are poor. Yet he and others like him had no problems accepting £107,000 per year via a tax break from this Countries’ treasury, and he irresponsibly endorses a Government who take money from the poor to give handouts to the rich. And tax break from what, exactly? It wasn’t anything to do with social responsibility, that’s for sure.
No-one has the right to preach about responsible behaviour after irresponsibly taking that amount of money from the poor, nor do they have any right to intrude into the private lives of poor people. Lord Freud has got nothing meaningful to say about living in poverty because he doesn’t and never has. Our private lives and personal choices are not public property to be prodded, scrutinised, criticised or discussed by people like him.
The feckless, something-for-nothing rich should be rejecting handouts in the form of tax breaks, and they need to pay their taxes – they need to put something back – contribute to the society from which they have insolently taken so much, not least a hugely disproportionate amount of wealth, leaving so many with nothing.
The last budget saw 25 billion pounds of our money handed out to big private companies already worth millions via a tax cut – that’s FIVE times the amount this Country spends on jobseekers allowance. Job centres no longer support people to find work: the main purpose now is to remove state support from people any way they can. Just like Atos – re-contracted by this government to cut lifeline benefits from the disabled and ill. How is this grotesque imbalance in how rich and poor, vulnerable people are treated by our Government acceptable?
Government minsters and the complicit media discuss the poor, and present articles which vilify the poor and disabled in the same way that serial killers do to objectify their victims. David Cameron has used his own disabled son in an attempt to humanise himself in public, whilst his own policies and ministers’ rhetoric have systematically dehumanised and objectified sick and disabled people in this country. That’s the psychopathic manipulation one would expect to see of a mass murderer, not a prime minister of the UK.
David Cameron has deliberately and spitefully targeted the poorest and most vulnerable to bear the brunt of the austerity cuts. When we actually look at the relative targeting of the Tory-led cuts of different social groups, then we see that:
- People in poverty are targeted 5 times more than most citizens
- Disabled people are targeted 9 times more than most citizens
- People needing social care are targeted 19 times more than most citizens. From: A Fair Society? How the cuts target disabled people
Under the bedroom tax rules, which violate basic human rights, more than 600,000 social tenants with spare rooms must either move or pay an average of £14 a week penalty. However, members of parliament with a spare room in their London homes can claim an additional allowance from the tax payer if a child or children routinely resides with them. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has ruled that MPs will remain eligible for the additional allowance if the child visits just once a month. 29 hypocritical MPs have claimed an additional £64,000 and a further 20 who claimed £37,000, whilst at the same time endorsing and supporting the bedroom tax.
Meanwhile, homelessness rose 21% in the last year, while rough sleepers (those not eligible for Local Authority support) rose 31% in England and 62% in London. The Bedroom Tax has negatively impacted on many people receiving Housing Benefit and their payments have been cut for having “spare bedrooms”. Many cannot escape the growing rent debts they are accumulating due to the cruel cut to their housing costs, because there are no [Government defined] appropriate housing alternatives in existence. So many will be evicted from homes, due to rent arrears, to find themselves homeless, with no suitable accommodation available. But wealthy private landlords are free to charge whatever they want to, there are no rent controls or a decent social housing policy in place.
This is a Government that deliberately creates insecurity and scarcity for many: income, employment opportunities, affordable housing, education opportunities, access to justice, health, energy, for example, whilst private companies make lots of money from these deliberately engineered circumstances, such as by using workfare to boost their profits from the use of free labour (at the expense of the tax payer).
The Governments’ economic decisions, policies and driving, incoherent ideology has created high unemployment, devalued the worth of labour, excluded those who are vulnerable from the labour market by withdrawing support from them, and then has the vindictive gall to savagely blame the victims of its own crimes, for those crimes, conducting character assassinations of the weakest, demeaning people, stripping them of their dignity and LYING about them.
Our economy is being tailored by the Tories to serve 1% of the population and this has a detrimental effect on everyone else.
The cumulative effects of the range of savage social security cuts designed by the Tories, which have hit the working poor, the jobless, the elderly and disabled people has been a massive rise in reliance on food banks. The number of people relying on food charity rose by 300% between in the year between April 2012 and 2013. This was once a first world country. Once the rest of the welfare “reforms” came into effect in April this year, the numbers relying on food aid have shot up 200% in the three months following. That means 150,000 more people have joined the queues at food banks, in addition to the half a million people already needing aid since 2010.
As Clement Attlee pointed out half a century ago:“Charity is a cold, grey, loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim”.
No-one seems to have challenged the idea that working to make someone else very wealthy is somehow virtuous, either. By implication, those that cannot work are regarded as lesser citizens, and that has become tacitly accepted. We have, once again, a Government that makes labouring compulsory, regardless of a persons capability, yet the same Government has devalued labour in terms of wages, rewards, and working conditions, whilst handing out huge amounts of our money to those exploiting the poor unemployed, the sick and disabled.
And Tories are always about vicious and divisive rhetoric. I’d recommend Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, only I know as a social work practitioner that the success rate is very, very low, especially when we are dealing with such entrenched and irrational systems of belief. And manipulative, amoral individuals with severe antisocial personality disorders.
Most who don’t work have no choice about it due to circumstances, such as poor health, disability, caring responsibilities, parenting responsibilities and a lack of reliable, affordable childcare, being frail and elderly. These are reasons that are completely out of a persons control. People forget that ill health doesn’t discriminate: it can happen to anyone. And so can unemployment. No-one is invulnerable, except for the very wealthy: the ones that won’t ever need any state support.
The Government has removed support and services for the people who need them most, whilst insisting that they must work. To regard the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society as less valuable, and to constantly attack them via the media is quite frankly disgusting conduct for a Government and those that support these despicable and hideous political narratives and policy actions. Such narratives say everything about the authors, and have nothing meaningful at all to say about those left in the situations this Government have contributed to manufacturing: those situations which none of them have ever had to experience or face personally. When they diminish others, they diminish us ALL.
Let’s hear some mention of facts in the media, instead of the usual Tory mouth pieces sanctimoniously preaching at people, “advising” how to manage their loss of lifeline support better, whilst endorsing the sadism of this Government. Let’s hear a loud call for the halt to the current programme of cruel and vicious cuts, which are disproportionately targeted at those with the very least, whilst this Government rewards those with the very most with massive tax handouts. Let’s hear the demand for decency, and a new and fair welfare system that is built on a fundamental recognition of the equal worth of all human beings and the guarantee of human rights for all. A social security that fulfils its intended purpose – to actually support people, rather than punishing them.
Thanks to Robert Livingstone for his excellent anti-indoctrination art work
Some further reading:
MPs’ expenses: Tory frontbencher Mike Penning claimed for dog bowl
The Truth About Jobseeker’s Allowance (a powerpoint presentation by jobseeker Benjamin Barton)
Red Cross officials called on European governments to try and find new ways to address to the crisis, as austerity programmes plunge millions into poverty and hunger.
How the cuts are targeted
The Poverty of Responsibility and the Politics of Blame
Quantitative Data on Poverty from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation
22 thoughts on “The right-wing moral hobby horse: thrift and self-help, but only for the poor.”
Just wanted to let you know the link is not working. Bev
P.S. Just noticed the r is missing in hoading. Look forward to the post.
Hi Bev, thanks for letting me know. I’ve had a spell in hospital, so this was written at a pace of a few paragraphs per day, partly due to exhaustion and partly due to a poor internet connection and limited access.
Well Done xxx
Brilliant Bravo Bravo Kitty!
Do you want ketchup with the chip on your shoulder?
Thanks for your speculation about my personality, and highly personal comment, stranger. It says rather more about you than me, however. It is such a typical tactic from those who lack the capacity for reasoned debate and who can’t actually criticise the rational content of an article, prefering instead to attack the author. So, quid pro quo, would you like a nappy to match the stage of your obvious arrested development?