The chancellor’s autumn statement saw him take yet another opportunity to articulate his disdain for the poor, as he outlined the government’s intention to deepen its attacks on the unemployed and benefit claimants. It also confirmed the abiding economic illiteracy that underpins austerity.
When Gideon Osborne drew his comparison between those who get out of bed to go to work and those who remain in bed and don’t, he confirmed not only the deep ignorance of someone who is the product of inherited wealth and privilege, but also the cynical ploy of the government in fomenting division between the working poor and the unemployed as it sets about continuing its objective of transferring wealth from the poorest to the richest in society, having succeeded in turning an economic crisis that was caused by private greed into a crisis of public spending.
The below-inflation rise in and out of work benefits of 1 percent over the next three years was compounded by Osborne’s announcement of a cut in corporation tax to 21 percent, the chancellor boasting that this will reduce corporation tax in the UK to the lowest of any major western economy. Taken together these measures reveal a level of inequality that can only be described as brutal, one which moreover places the UK on a par with the United States when it comes to the lack of social and economic justice built into the foundations of the economy. The chancellor’s confidence in outlining these blatant attacks on the poor in the midst of the worst economic recession since the 1930s points to the extent to which the right has won the battle of ideas, given the favourable ideological environment necessary for the logic underpinning them to gain traction.
The idea that the unemployed have chosen to be and enjoy being unemployed is the product of a skewed moral compass. It amounts to a criminalisation of poverty and those whose lives have been impacted most by the recession.
The creation of the welfare state by the postwar Labour government was predicated on the need to erect a firewall between the vicissitudes of a capitalist economic system subject to periodic shocks and downturns and those impacted most – the poor and the working class. The unemployed were held to be victims of and not responsible for the economic factors that informed their plight, and as such it was deemed morally just for the state to provide a safety net in order to prevent their destitution.
But with the nostrums of Thatcherism sweeping away the philosophy that underpinned the postwar consensus three decades ago, nostrums that continue to fuel the dominant narrative politically, economically and culturally, the moral foundations of the welfare state and the social justice it represents have been subjected to an ideological assault – one that has reached its nadir under the present government.
Poverty is the worst form of violence. Those in poverty have one thing in common with the rich in that all they think about is money – about how much heating, food, and other bare essentials they can do without as they struggle to make ends meet. The idea that cutting benefits and attacking the poor could ever eradicate unemployment is beyond perverse. On the contrary, instead of eradicating unemployment it will eradicate the unemployed – and quite literally too as the suicide rate goes up.
Indeed, this is what is so easy to forget when we listen to the benign and easy establishment-speak of the political class in its depiction of the unemployed as work-shy scroungers. More austerity for those at the sharp end equates to more despair, more domestic violence, more crime, more homelessness, more mental illness, more alcoholism and drug abuse, and more hopelessness; the fate of the increasing millions who’ve been selected by this government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich to be purified with pain.
It is a government that while claiming it wishes to help those who are willing to work hard, continues with an economic policy that has and will continue to create more unemployment. The inevitable consequence is that those of the unemployed who refuse to be crushed under the weight of the economic and social injustice they are being subjected to will enter the black economy, while others will drift into crime. The law of cause and effect cannot be denied.
So, yes, the new sport is kicking the unemployed, and it is noticeable and shameful that Labour refuses to stand up for this demographic as they’re being attacked so mercilessly, instead focusing its ire on the impact of the chancellor’s midterm budget on the in-work poor and those on middle incomes.
The shadow chancellor Ed Balls’s bumbling performance in parliament in response to the Osborne’s autumn statement was panned with good reason. At a time when the nation is crying out for a clear, positive, and bold alternative, Labour remains a prisoner of its own timidity and ideological weakness. It is why this government has been successful in deflecting its culpability over the state of the economy and why it will continue to do so.
The unemployed have been offered up as a sacrificial lamb to a neoliberal consensus that pits all against all and holds poverty as a symptom of moral decay on the part of those afflicted by it rather than a result of structural inequality and the policies of a government for whom society is divided between the undeserving poor at one end of the social spectrum and the deserving rich at the other.
Nye Bevan was right. The Tories really are lower than vermin.