Hungarian philosopher Gaspar Tamas gave a talk at the Munk Institute last September entitled, ‘The Failure of Liberal Democracy’. Thankfully, this was one of the rare occasions when the content of the talk lived up to its attention-grabbing title. In the context of the Welfare Reform Bill, the Spartacus Report and widespread austerity, as well as new anti-immigration rhetoric straight from Ministers’ own mouths, what he has to say struck me as extremely relevant.
Keynesianism has been killed dead by international bond markets, and raising overall taxation is way off the coalition’s radar, so, at least in the short-term, we are faced with a public purse that is shrinking, and will continue to shrink. This is the ideological context of the Welfare Reform Bill, and plenty of other legislation.
At the 25-minute mark on the linked video, he says this:
Governments have to decide (and [this] is the great moral problem of the age) a very simple and very basic thing – who do contemporary governments take responsibility for? In other words, who will live and who will die? Social existence is on its way out. Governments will decide who to help (and in contemporary terms, the number of these people has to be small, because governments don’t have enough resources in this crisis… they don’t have the will either). Therefore people in power have to decide, ‘Shall we continue, in this difficult position, when people who are working and their real wages are sinking, and when all the institutions we need, from hospitals to schools, are in a difficult situation; Do we finance immigrants? Do we finance the unemployable? Do we finance all the unpopular minorities? The ill? The lame? The old?
If you are reading this and are horrified, good. The problem is, these questions ARE being asked, at the highest levels of government, across the Western world. The great god Austerity demands a sacrifice, and who ends up on the altar is the question, not whether anyone does.
At a time when we are seeing disabled people stripped of their benefits and benefits caps being put in place, supposedly to alter the “lifestyle choices” people make, these decisions are being made by the coalition. It is clear that they don’t believe that in a time of restricted resources, one is morally obliged to provide for the sick and dying. Tamas understands that the welfare state as we know it is not a byproduct of capitalism but a deliberate construction of society in the face of capitalism, and one that it is crumbling fast.
“In a usual [or orthodox] capitalist society, there are two genuine and legitimate sources of income – Labour and Capital. All the rest has always been… threatened, but it didn’t have the importance it has today, when the majority is relegated to… one kind of assistance or another. [This] splits society in a… biopolitical way, [between] the people who are still working or still have capital… people who can help themselves in one way or one another (and even that involves skills and getting money out of the state), [and those who cannot help themselves in this sense].
This is already the case in the UK. Top-up benefits and payments such as child benefit are what keeps low-paid workers above the poverty line. State assistance, in other words, even for working people. And the number of state-subsidised working people is growing. To make work pay, and with inflation on the rise, increasing numbers of working people are relying on the state to help with their living costs, and with jobs moving abroad and advances in technology, the situation is unlikely to improve in the future.
In this environment of scarce resources (in which the resources are both jobs and state support in the absence of a job, or in the case of low pay), is it any surprise to find hatred towards those seen as not contributing or pulling their weight? It is the ugly side of the “hard-working taxpayer” rhetoric, when those seen as a drain on the system are vilified and attacked. A study for Scope by ComRes in May 2011 found that “more than half (56%) of disabled people say they have experienced hostility, aggression or violence from a stranger because of their condition or impairment” and that “more than a third (37%) said people’s attitudes towards them have got worse over the past year” (ie the first year of coalition government).
There is also a fundamental public misunderstanding of benefits such as DLA, which are assessed independently of whether the claimant is working or not. DLA is supposed to help people cope with the increased costs of getting around so that they lead active and fulfilling lives, and many “hard-working taxpayers” also claim DLA.
Add to this the damning select committee report which called Atos Healthcare’s Work Capability Assessment used to assess Employment and Support Allowance “flawed” with a “high proportion of inaccurate assessments”, and notes that “people are suspicious that the Government’s only objective is to save money.”
From the Welfare Reform Bill itself, I give you this passage regarding ESA:
“Many of us feel that a time limit on ESA needs to be justified on the basis that most people can expect to be back in work before it expires. The Minister has suggested that he would favour the shortest period he can get away with.”
This, we now know, has been set at 12 months. If you haven’t found a job by then, tough. Apparently, you only deserved that support on the understanding that it would help you find a job, and if you fail to do so, that’s it for you. This is the age we live in, when you don’t automatically qualify for government support because you’re a person who needs that help.
Tamas’ closing statements are chilling, and a reminder that this new norm which is developing in the corridors of power and in society at large is one which threatens fundamental liberal ideas of equality and basic human rights.
We are in a situation of passive revolution… Capitalism itself is operating the breakup that shows to us all that the old foundations are broken… Society is being broken up racially; according to health; according to age (and these are very fundamental, basic determinations in people’s lives). If people who are not producing are considered to be second rate citizens for whatever reason, well then we are in a very bad way, and there’s no reason to believe [in the morality of the state/society], and so whoever would like to go against this must address, with the greatest intellectual determination, the question whether he or she still believes in the fundamental equality and the common substance of humankind.”