Monday, July 21, 2008
The first thing to notice about this is that, as with the rollbacks of pension entitlements, all three major parties are backing this policy. The Tories have embraced it as one of their own. The consensus in favour of systematically dismantling protections for the poor, the old and the sick is rock solid in our political elite. The second is that, with wearisome predictability, some supporters of New Labour are working desperately hard to give this process a left gloss. Johann Hari argues that we cannot defend the current system in which millions of people are left to rot on the dole. True enough, but a) that is not a function of the welfare state, but of the capitalist economy which requires and produces a reserve army of labour; and b) what Johann is defending is the most authoritarian version of supply-side economics, which is quackery of a kind that Enlightenment-fetishists ought to be seriously worried about. Hari argues that people should be forced to do menial, generally pointless, labour in order to qualify for miserable benefits. He has an inertia-ridden, spliff-smoking friend named 'Andy' whom he thinks would benefit from cleaning graffiti or picking up litter. It would reconnect him with the world of work, force him to exercise his talents, and so on. Otherwise, he will remain listless and idle. And anyway, so the argument goes, if Labour doesn't do it, the Tories will in a much nastier way.
I am not going to waste time arguing over anecdotes. Let's start with the real world. As far as incapacity benefits are concerned, as I have pointed out before, there is no serious prospect of meeting the government's reduction targets even with the most punitive measures. This is because the best research indicates that: a) the recipients are largely genuinely incapacitated, contrary to the claims made by David Freud who has asserted that only a third of recipients are genuine; b) they live in areas where work is scarce and are the component of the labour force that is least attractive to employers, even if they can do a limited range of tasks, so the jobs for them largely don't exist; c) the theoretical commitment, ie the belief that an added supply of labour will create its own demand in accord with neoclassical economics, is barmy and unsupportable. Now, let's talk about jobseekers. How many jobseekers are there at any one time, and how many jobs exist for them? At the moment, the ILO estimate of unemployment for the UK is just over 1.6m (and growing). The number of jobs available in the UK economy is just over 650,000 (and contracting). (See the most recent ONS stats here [pdf]). So, even under the best conditions, with vacancies closely matching local skill distributions and educational levels, and with employers willing to accept local populations, there would still be a vast pool of people unemployed through no fault on their own part. And they should be compelled to carry out petty, punitive labour just so that they don't lose sight of what work really means? This is reactionary drivel.
Why doesn't Johann call for massive state investment in job creation? Why not offer people dignified, meaningful, public service work, with decent wages? Rather than what turns out to be a coercive system designed to make the receipt of benefits as unpleasant as possible for those concerned? After all, if litter really needs cleaning up and graffiti really needs dealing with, why don't we have the council services to take care of it? Could it be that councils, particularly in working class areas, have been run down for years and forced to rely increasingly on local levies that can't make up the shortfall, even as the government obliges them to get involved in extremely costly PFI programmes? If we're not down with public works programmes and job creation, why not simply make the system more redistributive? In other words, rather than capitulating to the hysteria about slackers on our taxes, why not simply say that those who have benefited most from an economy that keeps millions in unemployment should be obliged to pay the most to secure a decent livelihood for them in the interim of their incapacity or lack of paid employment. As they can hardly be relied upon to do so voluntarily, they will be expected to pay higher taxes on their salaries, bonuses, investments and profits. The poorest, meanwhile, the majority earning less than the mean income, could either have taxes reduced or abolished.
The reason Johann Hari can talk like this is because he accepts a moral fairy tale: benefits are some sort of charity in which nice middle class people part with a portion of their income to support the poor. That much is patently obvious from his opening shot. But the welfare state is not a charity. It is a modestly redistributive model to which everyone in work contributes. Most of those receiving benefits will have paid taxes at some point, or will at some point in the future. They do not need to be ordered around and demeaned by forced labour when at some point in their life they fall on hard times. Even those who have never paid taxes and, for the sake of argument, are conscientious layabouts who avoid the labour market (and who can blame them, given that most people cannot expect the relative security, dignity, fame and financial rewards that a newspaper columnist will receive?), don't need to be penalised in this way. First of all, even if it could work, it would require a nightmare scenario to do so. To really get to grips with the supposed recalcitrant spliff-heads and daytime-telly addicts (my stock of cliche is rapidly running out), you would have to construct a state bureaucracy so intrusive, and so arrogant and overbearing, that it would inevitably bring large swathes of even the 'deserving poor' under its surveillance and constant harrassment. People who have spent their lives contributing to the society would find themselves battered with 'work-oriented interviews', phone calls, demands for information, allocations for miserable 'community service' work. Constant testing and grading, and in the case of the incapacitated, inspection by GPs pressured with reward-focused targets, would be the motif if such a pointless exercise. Even if you could single out the tiny minority of putative couch potatoes, which of course you cannot, it would save the taxpayer next to nothing and produce no overall benefit. The politicians who are devising these schemes have every reason to know all this. They are not targeting the 'Andys' of this world, even if Andy is unfortunate enough to exist and to have a priggish moralist like Hari as a friend. The intention is to, as fully as possible, role back the welfare state - not to replace it with a version that people like Johann Hari can defend in good conscience, but to reduce it to a shell. That requires, as with the attack on the US social security system (scheduled to resume under Obama, I bet you), the contrivance of 'crises'. Suddenly, we lack the money for all this luxury, suddenly there is a financial gap, a shortfall, and there are all these millions of people using the system when they should be in paid work...
I suspect what really motivates Johann Hari's defense of the government is the concluding argument, which is that the Tories would impose a much worse scheme. It may indeed be so, but that is no defense of the government's policy. Of course, there is a great pressure on supporters of New Labour to find a way to defend the government or shut up, so as not to give any quarter to the resurgent Tories. But the idea that one can neutralise certain pressures by giving into them, attempting to co-opt and tame them, is nonsensical. It has never worked, not when the issue is immigrants, asylum seekers, Islam, wheelchair layabouts, crime, or any other hot button topic you can think of. The appetite of big business and investors for lower corporation taxes, more privatisation, more and more opportunities for accumulation with less of what they consider an unconscionable burden, is unquenchable. There is nothing you can give them that will stop them coming back in their media and their lobby groups for much, much more. Moreover, once you tell people that the David Freuds of this world are right, and that there is indeed a problem roughly as they describe it with solutions roughly as they prescribe them, you shift the argument away from social justice and the obvious way in which people are victimised by this economy, and the crying need to reverse the policies of the Thatcher years and shift power and wealth back to working people. You then get an argument about just how authoritarian the government should be, how much benefits should be cut, and under what circumstances, who should be targeted and how, etc etc. And you find yourself complicit in a process that targets and cheats the poorest, while assuring everyone that it is the progressive thing to do.