2007 - 2021

The return of hunger as a political weapon shames us all

Attending the Job Centre once a week was always a curious ritual. I recall long waits, being handed lots of bits of paper, stares from bored children and G4S security guards performing a carceral pirouette or two.

All of this strangeness, bordering on the obscene (why force people to bring children to such a place?) was of course laid out for us in order to obscure the most obvious fact about why everyone was there. We were there to collect money because we were broke and had thus fallen from the grace of employment.

Traditional British coyness about money has always been a thinly veiled reminder of our attachment to class. In an economy like ours which extracts a ‘poverty premium’ from those on low or precarious incomes, the common truth of being broke, or on the constant verge of it, should be neither surprising nor secret.

But if we were instead better able to name such basic facts about ourselves, the aura of shame that accompanies poverty in Britain would start to fall apart. The bizarre rigmarole of the Job Centre would be seen for the exercise in quiet humiliation that it so obviously is.

The most striking part of the ritual involved, finally, a chat about your job search with someone who was almost always utterly detached from their own work. Maybe this was designed as some kind of perverse incentive – you sit there thinking ‘if this person can get a job there’s hope for us all.

It’s genuinely difficult to keep track of the number of jobs I had in my twenties, let alone the hundreds that I applied for. Sitting across from a Job Centre Advisor, none of this seemed to matter. Instead, the desk in between becomes a kind of chasm, marked by the only fact that really matters in such places: one of us has an employer and the other doesn’t. I remember lots of sighs and vacant stares.

Any nuance, any useful sleight of hand or compassionate capacity is squeezed out from that moment of contact with the state. Many good people, surely, work in such places, but they can’t escape the web of cruelty that is woven into the design of the system. I always expected I’d be back at some point: precarious work becomes a kind of quantitative game, gaps on CVs became inevitable but still have to be accounted for: the prize of work that was stable and meaningful became ever more distant. They don’t teach this kind of ducking and diving anywhere that I know of.

But one of the recurrent truths revealed by having so many jobs is that of misemployment. We will all, at some point, work with people who hold down the wrong jobs for years, who are comically and self-consciously inept, who lack any of the innate qualities a certain type of work might require.

It says a great deal about the contemporary state of Britain that it is led by several definitive examples of the country’s legion misemployed. Several members of the current cabinet, including the Prime Minister, are inept to the point of absurdity and self-consciously so. But, like the DWP or ATOS employees who man the frontlines of a deliberately dysfunctional legacy welfare state, this is not coincidence. It is instead the performance of a complicit smugness; designed to disempower others.

It is impossible, perhaps, for those who have only ever known work as a fulfilling calling or vocation to understand it as any other than an entirely edifying and elevating thing.

But unlike her boss, the cleaner who goes to work in Number 10 cannot forego hard graft by offering up an impish grin and a reference to Cicero instead. Britain’s obsession with the failings of those who earn the least is part of that other truth that goes unspoken – the more you earn, the higher your status within any organisation, the easier it is to shirk and skive.

Such a breezy approach to status informs the great dream of English conservatism; to be left alone in the Home Counties. This has informed the basis of UK social policy from the reform of the Poor Laws to the present day. The whole point was to deter those who might need to seek assistance with the threat of the workhouse and to restrict the movements of those with nothing.

But the triumphant re-emergence of Victorian morality around the provision of welfare support in the form of Universal Credit, really ought to shame us all

The dark ancestor of this system can be seen in the entirely punitive step of withdrawing the £20 uplift from the Universal Credit allowance. We  have just emerged from the greatest experiment in the preservation of human life: but this must be scored out in case the sin of idleness returns.

Behind such policies sits the cloying moralism of a party politics that competes for the mantle of the ‘party of work’; an equally archaic notion. In this country, reverence for paid employment and wage-labour as an inherent social good ought to have been junked with the factories that once sustained it.

This extremely narrow concept of work as employment obscures the myriad, rich and immensely tough work of social reproduction: precisely the skills that we need to sustain an ageing society on an increasingly unstable planet.

Perhaps liberating the DWP adviser is just as urgent as liberating the claimant. These people ought to be engaged in a remarkable human enterprise –a great web of mutual aid and human solidarity. But the Job Centre remains a site where the basic imperative of our current system is repeated over and over again: instilling shame in case you feel entitled. The possibility that you might righteously make a claim as a member of society, in a country still run on the basis of birthright, must still be stamped out at all costs.

The hunger that will be created when the uplift is removed at the end of the month is simply an exercise in demonstrating these awful truths. The pandemic terrified us all perhaps, but it also demonstrated the innate capacity of a virus to act as a leveller and revealed all of the ‘hidden’ forms of work that we refuse to value. This cut is the first major backlash against that moment of mass solidarity. It represents the re-sharpening of hunger as a political weapon and the reiteration of cruelty as virtue. But it cannot succeed in erasing the knowledge and memory of the great collective work to preserve life we have just lived through.

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Comments (20)

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  1. James Mills says:

    ”Universal Credit really ought to shame us all ! ”

    Sorry , Christopher , I don’t feel shame . I have never voted for those who impose such vile punishments on the poor and the disadvantaged .
    I utterly condemn those who do vote for them , including so many in the Labour Party who are hardly any better than the Tories . Look at their voting record !

  2. Cathie Lloyd says:

    Brilliant, Thankyou

  3. Axel P Kulit says:

    Well said. This cult of employment not work is an exercise in the holding of power.

  4. Dougie Blackwood says:

    We all hope that Independence is coming in the next few years. We are promised a better, more caring, society once free from Westminster. The omens are good and I hope they can be followed through.

    There has been some discussion on a universal basic income as a solution but I suspect we really need a better way. Make the State of Scotland the employer of last resort that pays the independently assessed Living Wage to all who need it in return for useful work for the community. In those circumstances the many bad employers out there would have to compete for workers with better pay and conditions; they would no longer be subsidised by the state with it’s means tested benefits to make up the shortfall.

    The benefit is that all of the population would have at least a little money to spend. In turn all businesses would benefit; taxation income would also increase making it cost effective.

    1. Axel P Kulit says:

      I can see this being derided as communist and the risk of couples being split up with on sent to Dumfries and the other to Wick: in China they have a habit of splitting up couples like this then moaning about the rise in extramarital affairs.

      Apart from such devils in the details and the inevitable bureaucratic screwups this sounds reasonable.

      1. Dougie Blackwood says:

        You put your finger on the problem. In the past the people that run these schemes tended to be selected from those that were in need of work and were not up to real management of the resources that came their way. To make full employment work and derive real benefit from the resources that were available it would need to be that the managers were career managers, both in the management of the people at the coal face and those with the skills to see what is needed and can be done with the skill set likely to arise. It’s no good turning up and wondering what will we get them to do now.

        We have 32 huge “Local” councils that are totally unfit for purpose. They have many, many managers and very few workers. In their present form they could not play any part in a real reorganisation of workforce planning. I fear that is another problem we would have to fix first. Lesly Riddoch, quite rightly, lamants that our councils are neither local nor democratic. In the old saying they couldn’t run a raffle. Break up these monoliths into real local councils where every sizeable community runs it’s own affairs and have in each a department of fixing problems with a list of jobs looking for solutions.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          ‘Break up these monoliths into real local councils where every sizeable community runs it’s own affairs and have in each a department of fixing problems with a list of jobs looking for solutions.’

          I’m with you there, Dougie. And let’s start with the Scottish government. Let every sizeable community run its own affairs and any ‘national’ government emerge only as subsidiary to this.

  5. Tom Ultuous says:

    Are the dreaded Restart interviews still on the go? A universal basic income could do away with so much misery.

  6. Jim Ferguson says:

    A very perceptive and realistic assessment of ‘the benefits game’. The ritual humiliation is real and depressing, it has always been there, but I fear it is a lot worse than you say. It is beyond disgusting. It is good that you bring this to peoples’ attention.

  7. Greum Maol Stevenson says:

    “Behind such policies sits the cloying moralism of a party politics that competes for the mantle of the ‘party of work’; an equally archaic notion. In this country, reverence for paid employment and wage-labour as an inherent social good ought to have been junked with the factories that once sustained it.”

    I think this is a vital point. The fetishisation of “hard work” across the political spectrum, with all parties reflexively using such thought-terminating cliches as “hard-working people” and “hard-working families” reduces people to commodities. Why should work be hard? Why should we make life harder than it has to be? Rather than praising hard work, we should be using our resources and skills to make work, and life, easier. Hard work should be seen as a problem to be solved.

    1. Wul says:

      If you identify as a “hard-working-family” that must mean that there are other families out there who are NOT hard working.

      Punish them!

      1. Axel P Kulit says:

        If they are not “hard Working” they may be “smart working” If they are smart, the British attitude seems to be “Punish Them” The English at least tend. by and large, to hate people who can think and do think.

    2. Mons Meg says:

      Indeed, Greum. That and the role of employment as a form of social discipline. Both Left and Right have traditionally feared the Lumpenproletariat (the undeserving poor): those situated outside the ‘labour aristocracy’, marginal workers of debased or irregular habits who were lost to social production; the lowest level of the proletariat comprising unskilled workers, vagrants, criminals, and other ‘bohemians’ and characterised by a lack of class consciousness.

      1. Axel P Kulit says:

        They have also done all they can to make sure there are no “aristocrats of Labour” from Automation (i.e deskilling) to IR35 (deeming the self employed to be “hidden employees”). By “Work” they mean “employment” i.e wage slavery.

  8. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    A good and insightful article: you could also have mentioned the divisive dichotomy or the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor.

    In the Tory and media hegemony anyone who is not ‘one of us’ defaults to the ‘undeserving’ group and have to prove themselves not a threat to the order to be elevated to the ‘deserving’, but their is a limit to how much they can actually expect!

  9. SleepingDog says:

    Indeed, when did public disparagement of the idle rich fizzle out? Wikipedia suggests around 1929:
    Once when I was in the Job Centre there was a programme for recruiting for new technology jobs that were currently under-staffed. There was really interesting opportunity but I would have had to go down to Wales to train for months (as I recall). There was seldom any other link to ‘jobs that really need to be done’. Perhaps a soft fruit harvest call would be answered by many locals if organized properly?

    Meanwhile, many work in useless, parasitic or downright harmful jobs, instead of doing things to help planet, people and nonhuman life.

    Still, as I would repeatedly argue, our problems are compounded by the lack of good life philosophy and the vast consumerist propaganda engines of roboticized capitalism bent on inculcating a default sense of dissatisfaction that can only ever be temporarily assuaged by the next purchase hit or ego-flattering micro-feedback. But research seems to suggest (see Daniel Pink’s summary on motivation, Drive) that people really want mastery, autonomy and purpose. Jobs or activities that they can get good and better at over long periods with effort; opportunities to make meaningful decisions; and for a useful, positive, beneficial outcome.

    1. Axel P Kulit says:

      First, people want a net/disposable income around 25% more than will let them just survive. the 25% is for emergencies and feeling you are still human.

      THEN they want want “mastery, autonomy and purpose. Jobs or activities that they can get good and better at over long periods with effort; opportunities to make meaningful decisions; and for a useful, positive, beneficial outcome.”

      Mastery, autonomy and purpose are what you seek AFTER you can pay your way and have some fun.

      I keep thinking about David Graeber’s concept of bullshit jobs. Pay people enough and make them secure and they will stay in a bullshit job. If they feel it is a meaningful job you can pay them less – but there is a limit to how little you can pay them

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Axel P Kulit, yes, your first paragraph is essentially Daniel Pink’s point. Some research suggests that paying people over an optimum amount may result in poorer performances, partly perhaps because they start feeling entitled and too important to really put the effort in and do the less pleasant things, partly because assigning a monetary value actually devalues certain activities (as in, if I’m being paid to do this, it must be because I wouldn’t do it otherwise). There’s a RSA Animate short about it. But we don’t have to always look through the lens of ‘being paid’. There are other ways to organise society and economy, and indeed much of the modern web, computer software and science runs on idea communism and working for free. All the way to Mars.

        1. Axel P Kulit says:

          I think we are broadly in agreement but I see the lens of “being paid” as the lens of “having food, clothing, shelter and a life” Yes I know greed is everywhere. I think those who work “for free” do so only because they make enough survival tickets in other ways.

          I agree being paid to do something is not the same as doing it because you love it, but I fail to see how anyone could love say cleaning lavatories.

          being paid to do something may debase it in the mind of the worker, but it may also, say for a writer or painter, be a sign that the work is “good” or at least valued.

          But this is getting into complex workers so I will just say that work may be experienced and valued completely differently by a roadsweeper, a teacher, an accountant, a CEO or a Prime Minster, let alone a painter, sculptor, filmmaker etc. Sometimes we only look through one lens.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @ Axel P Kulit, fair enough on all your points. One might divide and share typically unpleasant chores more evenly and fairly (and there are some politicians for whom a life sentence of cleaning toilets would be getting off lightly). Given the world toilet shortage, many would presumably jump at the chance to have one to clean.

            I wonder if our insistence on raising some artists to professional highs is overlooking the alternate view that we are all artists and craftspeople, at least given very minimal encouragement or support or opportunity, and much art is essentially collaborative and commons-based (or artists stealing/borrowing from each other). I am thinking perhaps of the arts and crafts movement associated with people like William Morris. However, some artforms will take a great deal of time to reach a high standard of skill at, and specialisation (if not necessarily full-time) in those seems reasonable, if there is enough subsistence to go around and this is considered socially useful.

            One lens worth looking through is the developmental one, as children from an early age seek autonomy, mastery and purpose, and will often copy adult work voluntarily as indistinguishable from play (as indeed many nonhuman animals do). While nonhuman animals have also been observed to get angry at unequal pay for the same task…

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