Posted Under: Capitalism,Class,Democracy,Employment,Poverty,Society,The Welfare State
In the last month we’ve all heard about David Cameron’s proposed crackdown on benefit frauds. Lots has been said around the left about how these proposals are completely missing the mark in terms of where the government can be saving money if need be, but there hasn’t been much of a defense of the benefit frauds. There seems to be a tacit agreement that the fact that these people are “stealing our tax money” means that they are doing something wrong. The problem is that this idea comes out of the premise that there is something noble about working: that it is “the right thing to do” and “the right way to live.”
The fact is that benefits in our country are piss poor. As a young unemployed person in London you can be expected to live on approximately £50 per week. Many large families are squeezed into tiny accomodation. Many have to live in estates that are, due to decades of poverty and lack of investments in boom periods totally run down. Although a steady stable job might allow people to escape from these conditions, it does not signify anything noble. In fact it is entirely the existence of these conditions, the fear of poverty, which is shown to us every day in its true horror, that forces people to work.
And on a more general level, there is nothing in the slightest bit noble about most jobs. Yes, there are the jobs that can help people, but the fact is that when the profit motive for your job disappears, whether you’re a miner or a doctor, your job disappears with it. And now, when there are so many people unemployed, when there are so few jobs, the myth of the nobility of labour is a nasty pernicious lie invented to beat those who are least well off in our society.
The thing that keeps people in our society in work, ultimately, is not the myth of meritocracy, rather it is the reality of the possibility of starvation. Meritocracy is merely the spoonful of sugar that encourages us to continue swallowing this toxic medicine, but without the sugar we’d still have to take it.
So I pose this question, when people live in a society that is so unfair, when people are forced to live in such conditions, is it really so wrong that people steal from the state? The fact is that there are a whole bunch of more profitable ways to make money illegally, and they tend to be a whole lot worse for the whole society than taking a bit of extra money alongside benefits. The fact that people are willing to put themselves through the possibility that they may lose everything (their houses, their benefits, their freedom), that they go in for such a difficult method to get a bit of extra money, should show us something about their motives.
Part of the problem is how the question of money is seen by the rightwing press, tax money is always treated as our collective money, as if in a very American way we could take a class action against these benefiit frauds. But we can pose the question in the negative: Is it not correct to say that the money that we have paid in tax money has been consistently been misused, that instead of being used to help the country and its people, it has been used to prop up a system that has resulted in massive unemployment, a system that is totally sustainable alongside the impoverishment and immiseration of millions of people. Would it not be better that these people on benefits were bringing a class action against all those who voted for governments that rather than stealing a few pounds a week have instead stolen any opportunity for these people to live a reasonable existence?
And so it seems right that when people are subjected to such conditions of living they do the moral (if not quite legal) thing of taking money from the state to which for whatever perverse reason we say they are not entitled. This is a battle against inequality, and we must accept that whilst there may be the odd occasion of benefit fraud by someone taking real liberties, most people are simply taking what they need to exist in a world in which living is becoming an increasingly difficult.