‘Liveable’ and ‘unliveable’ lives; this government’s disrespect for ethics…

In 2010, I wrote a blog post discussing ethics and welfare for Public Sociology, a blog affiliated to the University of Leeds.  I find reciting this blog post very timely given my recent readings regarding the power of capital flows to destabilise economies, nationally and internationally, and the safety nets that institutions such as the IMF have created for incompetent private creditors/investors, as taxpayers – especially those belonging to stigmatised and vulnerable groups – take the brunt for greedy investors’ mistakes. This is alongside the increasing clampdown on welfare claimants in the UK as Iain Duncan Smith goes all China-style in proposing the state limit how many children someone can own and still receive certain benefits.

Essentially, it draws on the work of Judith Butler and her analysis of ethics and her related concepts of ‘liveable’ and ‘unliveable’ lives:

Butler purports that we have certain assumptions about what constitutes a ‘liveable life’, that everyone is interrelated by varying degrees of vulnerability, and that this ethical interrelationship is key to making lives bearable i.e. ‘liveable’. However, the vulnerability of those who are seen as having ‘unliveable lives’ is ignored, consequently, so are ethical obligations.

With welfare claimants paying the price for a £1.5 billion bank bailout as private debt is turned into public debt, as the blog makes note of, claimants are also associated with negative, misrepresentative discourses. So-called ‘facts’ are utilised to support a neoliberal, back to basics nasty ideology that puts the blame of the market onto the public sector and those seen as ‘unliveable’ – namely defined by whether they are in work, and if they are in work how much money they are earning alongside if they claim any form of assistance. Corporate assistance is judged as meriting a ‘liveable’ life whereas any form of assistance, such as child benefit or disability living allowance, that helps ordinary people work and survive, is often viewed as a reason to define someone as ‘unliveable’ with their vulnerability and associated rights ignored and trounced on by a cabinet of millionaires:

Butler’s acknowledgement of the interrelatedness and shared experience of vulnerability is important when analysing the welfare changes from a sociological critique. Everyone is vulnerable; it is an ethical obligation for us to acknowledge this. When this vulnerability is ignored, this is when ethics are discounted. The government’s welfare proposals are clearly ignoring the vulnerability that certain groups face, as they construct their lives as ‘unliveable’ mainly because they aren’t working.  When people rightfully protest against these ideological, shock-doctrine inspired cuts, people are protesting to be listened to and for this government to consider them ethically. Of course, people may not frame it like this – but utilising Butler’s arguments, you can see the clear link between ethics, respect and the right to self-determination and a life that isn’t destroyed by the ‘right’ of the State to dictate work as equating to ‘worth’.

This could be clearly shown in the recent proposals by Smith to limit child related benefits to those who have two kids. As I facetiously commented when hearing the news, unsurprisingly, the cap is ideological and inspired by the nuclear family, dogmatic back to basics rubbish. It is also demonstrates a pathological hatred towards helping those who need it, whilst rewarding those who got us in this mess. Hypothetically, what about triplets? Should the family abort? Or would it be their fault because of Social Darwinist reasons?

Again, it all comes back to this central question of whose life is valued. Pathologically, a private creditor that makes risky investments due to free capital movements (which is more than can be said about labour movement) and then capitalising on crises they help create by utilising a bailout to make money back from their bonds as taxpayers take the fall is given more worth, more respect and rights to having a ‘liveable’ life than an ordinary person trying their best to get along in a system. This system that discourages full employment, encourages false needs, endless consumption, greed and profit at the expense of comfortable, diverse and flexible employment where wages are higher and all people – irrespective of their social background – have their rights and vulnerability respected through ethical considerations of public good – not private good. As a note here, I am hoping to do a blog post soon on the idea of a bail-in that has recently risen to prominence given the cost to taxpayers from the global financial crisis.

Reading the Riots Conference Review…

It was only last week that Iain Duncan Smith was yet again forming a correlation, not causation, with the occurrence of the riots. This time, Smith argued that X-Factor was partly the cause of the riots. That’s right. The cause. Now, when I was younger, I was rather glued to the television when X-Factor came on. But now, I see it for what it really is. It’s glorified mass consumption, that removes the talent and meaning behind music to rather commodity, sometimes at the expense of the contestant, representing our instant gratification culture of excess, capital and agonising over becoming a millionaire. For me, rather, X-Factor, like the riots, is a product of a society and culture that has been consistently eroded by successive governments over the last few decades. Whilst Smith was correct in some of his statements regarding X-Factor’s vacuous nature, his analysis was skewed, getting things the wrong way around, as usual.

I wrote at the time of the riots regarding the racism, poverty, social segregation that many people taking parts in the riots experienced. The government wanted to take a different stance, however. They promoted the line that this was a subsection of the population, a small ‘uncivilized’ group of thugs, they advanced a crack down on gangs and social media – two things that The Guardian and LSE study into the riots, Reading the Riots, have found were rather trivial in terms of the cause of the riots.

The Guardian and the LSE hosted a conference regarding the Reading the Riots part 1 publication, with Theresa May and Ed Miliband amongst the attendants. The report is the first real in-depth sociological study into the riots. Whilst Cameron was busy arguing that the riots were a result of ‘pure criminality’ and the justice system became dis-proportional with the Court of Appeal arguing that sentences had to be a lot stricter than normal sentences in order to ‘deter’ others, with the recent Sentencing Committee for England and Wales legal guidelines review becoming stricter due to the riots and the potential for curfews to be placed onto areas in case there are future riots, all illustrate the backlash and law and order response the government had/has.Rather than sitting down, talking and listening ultimately to understand why such events could occur, we had the media and politicians teaming up to stigmatise those taking part. They were placed onto a scrap heap of so-called ‘degenerates’.

This heavy law and order, punishment approach was criticised by the report. The Reading the Riots report on the other hand managed to interview 270 people involved in the riots and talk to them about their reasons, experiences – as their voice has been consistently shut out by mainstream channels. With the use of methodological triangulation (qualitative and quantitative methods), the research offers initial data on understanding, not stigmatising, the rioters. For instance, the conference highlighted that despite David Cameron’s assertions that poverty had nothing to do with the riots, the data showed substantial evidence for a casual, not correlative, relationship. Poverty and desperation for wealth given the numerous amounts of constraints and lack of opportunities within society for people not as connected are often reasons many people try their luck on X-Factor, as well.

Paul Lewis talked about the opportunism of the riots – this is something again that relates to the desperation related to X-Factor and its instant gratification culture, encouraged by a society with a ruling elite based on greed, amorality, lies and corruption. Obviously, there are those critical voices of the Daily Mail and such forth that denounce the report as “left-wing claptrap”. Well hardly a surprise. To give the people they base their factitious hyperbole headlines on a voice would produce evidence to the contra and undermine their purely sickening ideological agenda.

Theresa May’s speech was framed by the usual rhetoric of the rioters’ being ‘irrational’ and ‘thieves’. She then claims to be using the study as a way to understand the riots, but you can’t call the rioters ‘irrational’ if you are willing to try to understand their rationalisation – the point of the study. It’s a prior undermining of the study’s findings! She annoyed the audience when claiming “The riots weren’t about protests, unemployment, cuts … They were about instant gratification.” Well, as I have been trying to illustrate with the X-Factor example, instant gratification culture relates to aspects such as protests and unemployment through the sheer ideological callous nature of this government’s economic political policies that are destroying the communities, mainly of the poorest. Instant gratification has been nurtured by a world in where bankers receive excessive bonuses for screwing over the country. A culture where people spend a few months in a talent contest and receive a million pound record deal. These are therefore surface events that reflect an underlying structural deficiency in democracy, fairness and equality. In other words, by blaming instant gratification May ignores the reasons for why we have such a culture; social and economic neoliberal policies, that is.

Regarding Theresa May’s announcement of a review into Stop and Search powers, it’s hardly going to be a revelation given the amount of criticism over years the powers have received, alongside promises from various politicians that the powers will be dropped, or restricted. As has been widely reported, there was a great deal of anti-police sentiment amongst the rioters. May pretty much defended the Stop and Search powers in her poor speech. One wonders why she even bothered turning up – she could have simply submitted an earlier speech on the topic, as the findings of the study clearly mean nothing to her and her millionnaire out of touch friends. She even went against the study’s findings that gangs had NO significant effect upon the riots, arguing that we should be listening to victims not rioters (going against the entire meaning of the study) and that the government will press ahead with their anti-gang strategy, alongside supporting the court’s tough punishments. I repeat; why the hell did she even bother to go? She learnt nothing. The government learnt nothing. They don’t care. As long as they have their millionaire bubble. As Julia Urwin said, “if we say that any understanding of why people did it is only an excuse, we are really missing the point.”As the conference also pointed out; what about rioters as daily victims themselves of a political and economic agenda?

Jokingly referring to Theresa May as a ‘warm-up act’, Ed Miliband was better when it came to the content and tone of his speech alongside accepting questions at the end of it. Miliband criticised the view purported by the government that the riots were a result of ‘pure criminality. There was a lot of emphasis upon values and morality, what this means in practice is hard to tell. Furthermore, he also backed the harsh sentences of the rioters. Whilst he addressed issues such as a living wage, as expected there is a genuine inability to connect the dots across the mainstream political channels. These riots are a consequence of a system that is beset with corruption, greed, conflict and where the ruling elite perpetrate their ruling agenda and ideology to the detriment of the mass majority. The study is a good building block to illustrating these problems, and I look forward to phase two of the study.

The problem of consistency for Labour…

It’s worrying to hear of Ed Miliband’s aides pressuring Ed Balls into admitting Labour spent too much in their last term. Let’s make this crystal clear, ok:

  • The Tories SUPPORTED Labour’s spending plans up to 2008.
  • 2008 was the financial crisis, so the Tories either:
  1. Support the economic/bank bailout, and its consequences – so the deficit/debt etc.
  2. Support letting the economy crash, through not spending money on (still) failing institutions.

This is what Labour should be picking up on, through constructing a discourse that highlights this very discrepancy to produce a powerful counter hegemonic force to the current neoliberal governmental doctrine and this pathetic chant of “it’s Labour’s fault”. It reminds me of a playground, where children protest effortlessly that it’s “someone else’s fault” in order to remove themselves from responsibility, decision and accountability.

Ed Miliband would be wrong to promote an agenda of accepting blame and submission, when really the deficit/debt problems are exaggerated and a by-product of a corrupt, capitalist bent neoliberal system. Capitalism wouldn’t survive without debt.

Then we come to the inability of the opposition to be the party many people need right now; a party that stands up for the ordinary person on the street, doesn’t fall for neoliberal and Daily Mail rubbish, and puts forward a competent progressive alternative. Labour’s inability to carve a consistent narrative was even highlighted by the likes of Iain Duncan Smith.

Whilst Labour rightly highlighted the problems of a benefit cap of £26,000 for the poorest (especially when the sheer mention of a high pay commission is treat with scorn), – but still wont be tabling an amendment to the welfare bill-this hardly goes with Ed Miliband’s rhetoric of making sure Labour aren’t seen as the party for those ‘ripping off the system’ – which, is really no one (figuratively speaking), well no one in desperation and poverty. Only about £1bn of the £5b welfare fraud is done on purpose, and let’s face it, that’s often out of desperation rather than the greed that stalks the billions of fraud going on at the top.

There is a problem of consistency. In order to oppose this government, it’s social, economic and environmental direction – Labour and Ed Miliband need to get on with this policy rethink and start articulating themselves with more bite and ignore the intimidation inflicted by the Blairs to the Daily Mail.

What’s missing is strong leadership; I don’t personally think challenging Ed Miliband is a good idea, just yet, given the void that would be left for a right-wing candidate to fill. What is needed is consistent pressure from the base of Labour (and outside), which is overwhelmingly progressive. What it all boils down to is consistency and leadership.

Iain Duncan Smith and his flawed logic of ‘causation’…

Iain Duncan Smith is busy championing another perverse ‘logic’ in an attempt to justify the occurrence of many people living below acceptable levels of subsistence. For Smith, providing extra money for those near such low levels of subsistence can sometimes make the situation worse:

So, this narrative goes, a family living in poverty one day would wake up free from it the next, simply by a money transfer. Yet any right minded person must know that it needs more than that to set someone free. Something else in their lives needs to change. Ask yourself this: what happens to the children of a drug addict if you increase their welfare payments? Is their family really pulled out of poverty? When you measure the effect on real life outcomes, the extra money may actually have made things worse. You have failed to tackle the root cause of the problem – the damaging addiction. Unless something changes in the adult’s life, nothing changes for the child.

It’s a clear, desperate attempt to sooth the conscience. Money isn’t the cure per se, but money is a central reason for why so much inequality and social, political and environmental problems occur. Or more specifically, the actual relations that frame money transactions and the way money is constructed is the problem. For instance, oil itself has become a currency – it governs the capitalist relations, when oil runs out say if Saudi faces democratic protests and the cost of oil goes up, or if Saudi’s projections of how much oil they have is, as it is said to be, exaggerated – then the neoliberal global system the elite rely on is set for a radical challenge.

Looking at Smith’s arguments closely, it’s clear he conflates cause and effect. In attempting to justify taking money away from drug users he argues that doing so will actually help them get out of their habits (essentially why the government plans to take benefits away from those who don’t stop taking drugs when the government says so), that the reason for why they have a drug habit is because we are giving them more money. His ‘root’ cause is the addiction itself.

When in fact, poverty itself is often the source of the addiction; and the current source of this is neoliberalism. Furthermore, taking away someone’s benefits can actually make the situation ten times worse. Instead of treating drug users as criminals, we should see it through a medical perspective. We should recognise the values that inform our drug system’s stratification, where harmful drugs such as alcohol and smoking are part of our culture even though they are often more dangerous. The “something else” that Smith is talking about is explicitly ignored. In this perverse logic, it is assumed that poverty itself will help remove the addiction. Smith talks about seeing the situation in a more complex way, but his reductive logic that providing people more money is the source of problems such as drugs, is illogical.

However, excessive money is a problem. But not for those at the bottom struggling to survive. It’s a problem when we have greed, profit and illogicality governing our political economic system; this belief that cutting bonuses, taxing the banks and radically reforming such institutions so that they are democratic is a ‘threat’ to our existence is also illogical. Well, it might be a threat to those who wish to prevail the status quo, but for the most, especially those that Smith is stigmatising, it can make all the difference. This society is polarised, and it is only getting worse. Smith and the government are focusing upon the wrong people. This perverse mentality that those at the bottom are to blame is infuriating.

Such ‘logic’ is the epitome of what is wrong with this government’s direction. Such conflation of cause and effect and simplistic acontextual arguments are damaging. The problems we have in society are a lot more complex than throwing money at people, yes. However, we can’t deny that many people live below acceptable levels of income whilst many at the top are living like aristocrats. This has to stop. Blaming the poor through some sort of discursive destruction has to stop.

Welfare claimants and the discourse of ‘threat’…

The government has announced its latest welfare ‘reforms’, coached in rhetoric that attempts to stigmatise welfare claimants, particularly disabled people, as lazy and deliberately avoiding work. This ignores the context of the reforms, as the government instigates some of the most regressive cuts through a neoliberal framework, whilst unemployment rises

The discourses (language, essentially) employed to justify such reforms are evidence of an inversion of power and related discursive reversal. I came across this whilst reading about the discourses employed during the Section 28 public debate. The discourses inverted the power relations to justify the repressive Section. By this, the government constructed homosexuals as the ‘threat’ to institutions such as the family, the same way the government are now constructing benefit claimants as the ‘threat’ to work – oh and also the family:

We have a system where people too often are rewarded for doing the wrong thing, and those who strive to do the best by their families are penalised. – Iain Duncan Smith

By rhetorically reversing the actual power relations, the government can then attempt to justify their reforms by scapegoating and distorting reality.

The discourses construct benefit claimants as ‘scroungers’ who threaten the stability of central (capitalist) institutions. Why work is so central, I have questioned before. However, such a discourse connects with most of the media’s agenda, whilst ignoring the underlying issues. For instance, wages are low, especially with prices rising (which is most likely to keep rising given the Middle East liberation protests), this is one of the reasons for why Adam Smith Institutes’ suggestion to abolish minimum wage to supposedly improve employment figures is arrogant at best. Furthermore, undermining benefits such as DLA creates more poverty, given that disabled people often rely on extra income to maintain an average (often below) living standard.

Sadly, Iain Duncan Smith appears to think he is addressing the ’causes’ of unemployment:

That is why this Government is focusing on the root causes of poverty. Welfare dependency, educational failure, addiction, debt, and family breakdown – these are the five pathways to poverty which we are determined to deal with. They are our five giants, our modern-day equivalent of the great social challenges William Beveridge outlined all those years ago.

The key question here is why? Why is debt such a problem, for example? Well central to the why question is political economy. For instance, people are often in debt because of the capitalist need for debt for credit to spend, borrow so growth may continue recklessly. This is what needs to be challenged, the underlying social, political and economic relations – Iain Duncan Smith is missing this.

Whilst DLA may be replaced by a universal credit, as Blunkett points out, DLA is not always an out of work benefit with many relying on the benefit when in work to keep them in work because of the additional costs! This will therefore act as a cut to disabled people’s income, when they as a group experience poverty disproportionately. This added to an intersection that women are more likely to be disabled, and are disproportionately affected by the cuts. All these changes are symptoms of a false economy, with the government pushing through their own ideological agenda. Alongside this, the welfare reforms will see everyone on incapacity reviewed again – obviously, within a remit of “work, work, work”.

It’s unbelievably frustrating. However, within discursive practices, there is always resistance. Unfortunately, the Labour Party are broadly supporting the measures, refusing to divert from their own discursive reversal that saw the introduction of damaging schemes such as ESA. Nevertheless, discursive reversal provides opportunity for discourse and political resistance. Section 28 wanted to prevent the ‘promotion’ of homosexual, however, it actually did the opposite with widespread campaigns against the law helping mobilise a homosexual identity and collective culture. The same is happening for groups such as disabled people.

Simply put, this government has no concern for ethics and no understanding of how the ‘ordinary’ person lives. The Tory party relies on the City for it’s sustainability, and does nothing to change the damaging strangle hold such relations have upon the wider political economy.

Benefit proposals/discourses are wrong to equate work/labour as source of ‘self-worth’…

Surrounding the benefit changes, and the £28bn cuts to welfare, is this perception that one of the main, if not the only serious, sources of self-development is labour/work. Consider Ken Livingstone’s support for workfare:

It doesn’t do poor and unemployed people any favours to leave them out of work. If you get people into the habit of getting out of bed, doing something, having a sense of worth and if that involves getting people who are currently unemployed helping out with the elderly or clearing up an area or things like that, I think it’s worth doing.

Livingstone’s talk of “sense of worth” is equated to paid work. However, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this isn’t just a right-wing phenomena. Marx and many socialists/communists are guilty of the same thing. For Marx, labour was intrinsically related to alienation, production processes (mode of production) was the central route to reforming the self and allowing for creativity and freedom (again, to do with freedom from the necessity of labour.) Whilst relations and forces of production are in need of change, equating them as the main basis of self-development ignores the wide range of sources of identity. It ignores the fluidity of identity and people’s ability to change and construct their self.

Instead, there needs to be a broader consideration of theorists associated with traditions such as ecoanarchism, which refer to how a change in the structures of our society need to be ushered in by a revolutionary movement of self enlightened general will; through technological alterations and a realisation that not all ‘needs’ are actual needs, more just capitalist constructions in order to justify the system and attempts to steer away from the falling rate of profit.

The problem with the current system is that it promotes full employment as an endless goal, when the de-skilling and the desire for profit prevents such a occurence. Work shouldn’t be seen as the benchmark for self-worth, it might provide people with an aspect of their identity, but there are so many other activities and aspects that inform what and who they are – this deterministic moral crusade results in detrimental polices such as the potentially illegal workfare IDS proposals. This has to change.

Is IDS’s plans for four weeks unpaid work legal?

Now, the government’s plans to introduce four weeks of around 30 hours a week unpaid (well paid in terms of benefits) work for those on job seekers got me thinking about the legality of such a move. Whilst I am no law buff, surely there must be problems with this regarding minimum wage? You are basically undercutting existing labour, depriving people from jobs that would need to be paid at a higher level and enforcing a form of slave labour.

A way around this would be for benefits to increase when these jobs are carried out, in line with legal requirements. It seems like a serious loop-hole that is being exploited. Chuka Umunna, for Labour, referred to how there is little difference between Labour’s and the Coalition’s plans – however, essentially, the difference is that Labour’s were more positive. It was work experience, not work per se. The difference is fundamental when it comes to legality.

Most people have done unpaid work experience, it is intended to give you skills and experience for future job opportunities. However, these current plans are instead an attempt to get jobs done for cheap, undercutting others, creating divisions and possibly breaking the law (something I am not saying is a fact, just something that needs considering).

Regardless, even if this is a legal practice it is immoral and unhelpful. However, even if it is illegal, I am sure there will be a way for the vested power interests to bend the laws to make it happen.