Why the Persecution at Dale Farm is all about the Economy
When I was a postgraduate student I tutored on a course about the politics of inequality. We dealt thematically with gender, sexuality, race, class and ethnicity. By the end students were fully convinced of the value of non-discriminatory politics. Until that was we got onto the subject of travelling people. The mention of travellers unleashed a torrent of bigotry; stories intended to explain why utter intolerance was acceptable and even a set of jokes about shoddily done work. Where it was easy to explain why discrimination on grounds of sex, race or other social descriptions was unacceptable, prejudice against travellers seemed to be much more deeply engrained.
There’s good reason for this prejudice being so profound. Owen Jones writes at length in his excellent book Chavs about how class became a legitimate field for prejudice over the 30 years as society and the economy became organised around consumption rather than community or ability. Similarly prejudice against travellers has profoundly economic roots.
Our economy is based around the exchange of work for wages. Rather than in agrarian societies where people work to directly produce their own food or in a barter economy where people swap goods and services for food almost everyone works to earn money that then allows them to pay for food, shelter and other necessities.
In a wage economy, where workers have to exchange their labour for money there is inherent conflict between those who pay wages and those who work. Everyone wants more money in return for their work while employers will want to pay less. A number of factors determine how much is paid for particular work. These factors include the availability of qualified labour (the more people who can do a job, the lower the wage for it will generally be) and the availability of money to pay for work (where there is less money available, less work will be offered).
One of the strategies pursued by organised employers is to create a supply of unemployed or underemployed workers so that wage levels will be driven down. If there are 20 people who can do a job and only 10 places, the employer is able to make the 20 people compete with each other to do the job for less money. On the other hand if there are 5 people who can do the job and 10 jobs needing done the workers can ask for more money to do the job.
Travelling people throw this equation out of balance. By travelling they make it much more difficult for employers to bargain down wages. It’s only sensible to move from somewhere where you will be played off against other workers so your labour is worth less. That’s why so many early human societies were transhumanant (moving to where the food or work was). So employers seek to introduce social sanctions on travellers.
By ensuring that workers are not able to move, the competition for work becomes greater and the value of wages is reduced. Where state boundaries cannot prevent the movement of workers, the state and the organs that influence our culture are pressed into use. One of the reasons why the Thatcher government was so keen to sell council houses was to make it harder for workers to move. Selling one house to move is much more difficult and expensive than terminating a lease, particularly if you wish to buy another house. The explosion in home ownership is part of the reason why Britain’s workforce has become much less mobile since the 1980s.
The bureaucratic apparatus of the state has failed travellers in Britain at almost every turn. Education authorities fail to put in place appropriate measures to serve traveller children, health services are rarely as accessible for travellers as they are to even the most excluded settled people and local authorities seek to prevent travellers from using traditional sites.
And that’s before you get to the employer controlled media’s portrayal of travellers…
All of the massive firepower of the state and media are used to undermine travelling as an acceptable way of life. This has led to the demonization of travellers, open persecution by bigoted politicians and the marginalisation of travellers by the state. The aim of all this is to prevent travelling becoming an acceptable way to find work. It feeds off the racist controls placed on immigration and the move to mass home ownership to ensure that wages are depressed through an end to the movement of workers.
This media attack on travellers goes as far as to claim that people who move to sell their labour actually damage the interests of other workers. The argument goes that by creating more competition for jobs in one place mobile workers reduce wage levels there. But that is a product of employers success in ensuring that most workers can’t move to where there are most jobs and higher wage levels. The movement of workers is much more of a threat to employers than it is to other workers.
The eviction at Dale Farm is just the latest act in a long and disgraceful history of oppression for travellers. A history of opression recognised by Rabbis who have spoken out against the eviction at Dale Farm as part of a shared Romany-Jewish history of victimisation. It stands as a warning to workers everywhere that if they seek to move to where their labour is most valuable they will be the victims of state oppression and media vilification. We must stand in solidarity with travellers both because of their long history of oppression and their resistance to control by labour markets.