Saturday, 4 July 2015

Strivers and scroungers

In this post, I want to pick up on an oblique point in my previous one. I mentioned there how a very potent political trope is to draw a distinction between scroungers and strivers. Scroungers, here, are those who do not work and rely on welfare benefits. Strivers are those who are in work and, by implication, are seeking to better themselves through work. I was reminded of this not just in writing my post on Greece but also, today, by an announcement by the British government that inheritance tax liability is to be reduced. It’s the justification that is relevant here, because it was couched in the argument that “hard-working families” who had saved to buy a home and improve it should be able to pass the fruits on to their children rather than to the tax collector.

This term – “hard-working families” – has become a cliché in the political lexicon. It’s a strange expression in and of itself. What is a hard-working family? One in which every family member (and how extensive does it have to be?) works hard? Are single people who work hard part of it? Should the idle rich be taxed more? What about those who go to work every day but slack off?

In relation to inheritance tax it seems especially strange. The new policy is aimed primarily at those whose houses have become very valuable, and in the UK housing market, especially in London, they have indeed become very valuable. But this has nothing to do with work, or saving, or home improvements. All you have to do is sit there and it happens. Recently it was reported that in many parts of Sothern England house price inflation earns homeowners more than they receive in wages. So there’s no particular virtue, and certainly no hard work, or even any work at all, involved in accruing an inheritance based on home ownership to pass on. Moreover, what of the recipients of this inheritance? Manifestly, they have not put in any hard work at all. So why, if hard work is the cardinal value, should they receive anything?

The counterpart, of course, is an equally incoherent – and very longstanding - narrative of the deserving and undeserving poor. Indeed, in the same package as the inheritance tax changes are further restrictions on welfare articulated through exactly the same distinction. Ironically, many of those who will suffer as a result are, indeed, hard-working families in receipt of tax credits to top up low wages. Nothing new there, either: the Speenhamland system of the early 19th Century was similarly a subsidy for low wages, as the Poor Law Report of 1834 demonstrated.

And those most poignantly affected by welfare changes are the disabled. Here, again, a narrative of the deserving and undeserving is in play, with endless stories about fraudulent claims from the ‘bad back brigade’ accompanying sentimental and self-congratulatory statements of sympathy for the ‘genuinely’ disabled, which seems to mean those who are so self-evidently handicapped that even the most stony-hearted cannot deny it. Or perhaps not, since in some cases people who cannot walk, talk or feed themselves are being called to the job centre. At all events, plans to shift disabled people on to jobseekers allowance suggest a belief that they are ‘shirkers’ and not ‘strivers’. Yet when it comes to migration, the narrative reverses. Here, the problem is the strivers – the economic migrants – pretending to be asylum seekers, or in other words ‘bogus’ asylum seekers. These strivers are to be rounded up into detention centres and deported pronto. Whereas, in a long-remembered phrase, unemployed workers should get 'on their bike' and look for work, an idea espoused by the government as recently as 2011, those who get on the boat (and risk their lives) to do so are the most dangerous of scroungers.  

There is no logic in any of this, unless it is the logic of spite and division. Which is not to say that work – whether ‘hard’ or not – is unimportant. On the contrary, work is massively important both economically and in terms of self-worth and identity. But work bestows or enables value and identity; it does not express it, nor does it disclose any fundamental morality. The idea that it does is deeply rooted, though, enabling the idea that poverty and suffering reflect individual moral failure rather than systemic inequality or just dumb luck. Over a hundred years ago, the founding figure of organization studies, Max Weber, wrote one of the most important books about modern society, a book that influenced me deeply - The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It still has much - all too much - to say about the contemporary world.

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