Monday, 18 February 2013

Were slaves too good to pick cotton?

I admire Iain Duncan-Smith, both for his determination and his commitment to the central issue - which is how the welfare system can undermine individuals and communities at the same time as rescuing them.

I have no problem with the idea that we should expect people on benefits to do something useful - that is a major improvement on the old idea, which is they should moulder away idle and 'available for work' without actually doing any.

But what was he thinking about in his outburst over the weekend?  When you require somebody to stop working with a museum and work instead stacking shelves at Poundland, of course they are going to complain about it.  They are not "too good to stack shelves".  Did the slaves in the Deep South feel they were too good to pick cotton?  No, they objected to being enslaved.

The issue here is not whether or not people should do something in return for the basic money to support life.  There is a moral obligation that they should, and benefits regulations that prevent them are complicit in undermining their lives.  The real issue is whether the state has the right to move them from useful work to a technocratic system of labour - as if that was the only real work for poor people.

I wrote about the link between Amazon and Big Brother yesterday, and - listening to the dramatisation of 1984 on the radio yesterday - the links between modern workplaces and Orwell's dystopia seem even clearer.  The mindless slogans, the marble porticos, the sudden disappearances, the doublethink, the endless measurement and the telescreens.  Some work is like that - de-humanising, wasteful of the human spirit.

The big problem about work as designed by the time and motion pioneer Frederick Winslow Taylor is that it only uses half the workers - it entirely wastes their imagination, common sense, knowledge and humanity.  So here is the issue: does the state have the right to force you to do de-humanising work when you already have useful work?  Can the DWP only recognise work when it is packaged, measured, monitored and thoughtless, and not when it involves other attributes than mere brawn?

Or are they waiting for their claimants to succumb.  To be able to say, as Orwell did about Winston Smith: "Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Poundland.  Or Tesco.  Or Amazon or any of the others..."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"The issue here is not whether or not people should do something in return for the basic money to support life."

I always thought the thing we did in return was to pay tax and national insurance when we were in exployment.

But why not? Let's get all the able-bodied pensioners to do something in return for their pension, rather than wasting their lives being parasites.

Of course if they were all forced to work for private companies for nothing, there might be a rise in unemployment, but where's the harm in that, if the extra unemployed will also be doing some productive work? If we play our cards right, we can probably have the whole population working for nothing ...

Oh brave new world ...