I’ve yet to see a decent challenge to the Tory proposition that citizenship and rights can be determined by, and ought to be conditional, on how hard-working a person is. Of course the definition of “hard-working” is narrowly restricted to categories of paid employment. People working for nothing on workfare programs aren’t considered to have any value at all. They are simply left to fall down into the vortex created by neoliberal logical gaps.
The Conservatives have always had a pathological need to create social systems comprised of ranks and categories, it’s a fundamental feature of their collective ontological insecurity and fits in very well with the key features and demands of neoliberalism.
It’s complete and utter nonsense. Dogma
People’s worth isn’t measured in terms of their contribution to the increasingly private wealth of businesses, or what they can do for an employer. Or their participation in an increasingly enclosed neoliberal economy. Human worth is universal, regardless of whether or not we work to make someone else rich.
Nor is entrepreneurship the pinnacle of human achievement.
If work was so rewarding, there wouldn’t be any resentment directed at people who aren’t working. Workers would be content with their lot, rather than regarding others with envy, sneaking suspicion and vilifying those people trying to simply survive on the meagre benefits that most of them contributed towards via taxes. The establishment and the media would have no public complicity in their perpetual scapegoating, outgrouping and socially divisive programmes. We can always expect a particularly controversial, targeted and damaging policy from the Tories when we see the sudden appearance in the media of a new category of folk devils. It’s intentional, strategic, calculated and scapegoating is presented as a justification narrative for yet another battle against another marginalised group in the establishment’s broader class war.
The truth is that the majority of people don’t find work rewarding at all, and for many, having a paid job isn’t a way out of poverty. Labourers are deeply envious of the perceived freedom of those they feel don’t have to toil. The Conservatives know this and have virtually culturally criminalised being unemployed. This said, if you end up in prison, at least you can rely on being fed, whereas if you are claiming jobseekers allowance or sickness and disability benefits, there’s a substantial risk of being arbitrarily sanctioned, suddenly leaving you without the means of buying food and meeting other basic survival needs.
Effective collective bargaining can only happen if people have the right to refuse jobs that are exploitative. Workfare has taken that right away. Welfare conditionality has taken that right away.
As welfare provision shrinks, an increasingly desperate reserve army of disposable labour becomes easier to exploit; work choices shrink, wages are driven down, job insecurity grows and working conditions worsen. It’s the cast-iron law of Conservatism. As I’ve pointed out before, the Poor Law of 1834 worked in the same way: the enshrined principle of less eligibility, which meant that conditions in workhouses had to be much worse than conditions available to those in the lowest paid work outside so that there was a deterrence to claiming support. In reality this meant that an individual had to be completely destitute in order to quality for poor relief. The Tory mantra “making work pay” is based on the same ideology as the less eligibility principle. It was always a front for the neoliberal New Right imperative to dismantle welfare support and compete in a race to the bottom through the various descending layers and facets of absolute poverty. Whilst employers ascend and profit.
We decided, agreed and ratified that each human life has equal worth at an international level after the consequences of hierarchical thinking culminated in the atrocities of World War Two. Hitler thought that some people were worth more than others. All despots do. However, we progressed, we learned. We evolved. We formulated Human Rights as a coherent and collective response.
But it’s a lesson the Tories clearly have forgotten. Or chose not to learn. Our society is more unequal and steeply hierarchical than ever, inequalities are greater here than anywhere else in Europe, and including the USA. That’s a direct result of Tory policy, weighted towards handouts to the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Despite our human rights and equality legislations.
But the blame doesn’t entirely belong to the Tories. The next time you look down on your neighbours for being sick, disabled, mentally ill, unemployed or for being from a different ethnic background, remember where that sort of collective thinking takes us as a society. If you don’t believe me, go away and read Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice, have a look at Allport’s Ladder, and compare to where we are now, in the UK, in the 21st Century.
As a society, we need to learn from history. Progress. Evolve.But we are regressing instead. Human Rights are fundamentally incompatible with neoliberalism.
Allport wrote about how the Holocaust happened. Public acceptance of eugenic thinking happens incrementally; rational and moral boundaries are pushed, bit by bit, almost imperceptibly, until the unacceptable becomes acceptable. And prejudice multi-tasks. Hitler killed the sick, disabled, the poor and “workshy” first.
That psychosocial and political process is happening here, unfolding in stages day by day, week by week, year by year: the media are a large part of the ideological mechanism; a state apparatus used to push against our rational and moral boundaries. And this mechanism is being used to de-empathise us, to make us less sympathetic to the plight of politically defined others. And to regard them as having less worth than ourselves. Neoliberalism creates steep hierarchies of power and wealth, it isn’t generous to most people.
My message here is about the equal worth of all human beings. Who we are is a universal, and not the same as “what” we are or the labels we may acquire because of our superficial characteristics. Those things are artificial and culturally relative. We all share the same basic needs, fears and hopes, we share archetypal dreams and nightmares. To paraphrase RD Laing:
All in each, each in all, all distinctions are mind; of mind, in mind, by mind. No distinctions, no mind to distinguish.
All lives equally precious.
Our worth can never be measured out in meagre pounds and pennies.
But they don’t and they never will.
Many thanks to Robert Livingstone for the image.