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If it was not associated with so much human misery, the Tory Party’s approach to the question of unemployment would be pretty amusing. This is the organisation that never misses the opportunity to tell the unemployed that they need to get off their arse. And yet, by any objective measure, it is also the party of mass unemployment. Though their current headline slogan asserts that they are the party that “for hardworking people”, the opportunity to actually work, hard or otherwise, diminishes substantially whenever the Tories are in power.
Yet the power of ideas within society is not simply a function of their validity. Just because we easily show the Tory rhetoric on benefits to be nonsensical, we should not kid ourselves that such rhetoric can simply be swept aside. Benefit baiting carries sway, and not simply because of the Mail and the Sun. Historically, the idea that paid work justify’s the individual’s place within mainstream society has not simply been part of the dominant discourse. It has also, whether we like it or not, figured prominently within the political culture of Britain’s organised working class – from the chartists, who presented themselves as the spokespeople of Britain’s “productive classes” (unlike the financiers, merchants and aristocrats), to the trade unions of the 20th century who typically deployed some kind of labour theory of value to legitimate their claims for higher pay.
This offers some explanation as to why many of Britain’s unemployed millions are reluctant to identify politically as “benefits claimants”. An unemployed man complained to me in Brixton market that other unemployed people who choose not to work were ruining his reputation as an unemployed man. Many of those who are unemployed would much sooner complain about a lack of work than about inadequate, or excessively conditional benefits.
The problem for the left, is that while we have, quite rightly, got very good at rebutting the arguments for slashing benefits, by explaining that unemployment is not the fault of the unemployed, we have said less about the otherside of the equation. That is to say, we haven’t about how UK Economy can be reordered in such a way as to offer decent meaningful work. This is not something that can simply be achieved through legislation – for example a banning of zero-hour contacts – but instead through much more fundamental intervention to reshape the British economy.
This means, for example, drastically reducing the role of markets, both in driving the production (and non-production) of goods and services, and in allocating capital. A publicly funded British Investment Bank, could allocate scarce investment funds to those industries that created the most good jobs, rather than those that simply generated the highest profit for the least risk. A willingness to intervene in the sphere of international trade could protect workers in those circumstances where markets move faster than human beings and industries can readjust. We need a government that actually creates, or at least subsidizes, socially useful, job-rich, industries, such as green energy – even where they make a financial – and thus supports the development of those industries that have a future but right now have no beginning.
In short if are to respond adequately to the benefit-baiting of the tories, then we need to call loudly for policies which, as economist James Meadway put it to me, “make serious inroads into the perogatives of capital”. If we don’t do this then not only will we fail to offer a convincing alternative to the programme of austerity and privatization. We will also miss a huge opportunity. After all, the unemployment and underemployment of 5.5 million people illustrates l to well the dysfunctionality of the current economic order – and very much opens the door to a fundamentally different vision of how (and by whom) the economy should be wrong.
And finally, the treaty scholars amongst you will recognise that most of what I propose might potentially be vetoed by the European commission on account of Europe’s State Aid laws. This is hardly surprising. As with the People’s Budget of 1908 – or indeed the reaction of power companies to the proposed price freeze – measures to seriously redistribute wealth tend to provoke a clash with the least democratic organs of political power. And as always this is the kind of clash that we should be ready to throw ourselves into, rather seeking to avoid.
To contact Reuben email firstname.lastname@example.org