Driving people to self-immolation: pour encourager les autres
Yes, it has come to this – an unemployed man in Birmingham has set fire to himself outside a job centre. The exact context of his self-immolation is not yet known, and no doubt the government, if they say anything, will talk about tragic personal circumstances, about how they shouldn’t comment on individual cases.
And whilst the government delicately tip-toe around the issue, the comedians at Order Order have reacted with their predictable class – missing the point entirely and making a joke about petrol prices.
Of course, what we don’t know about this one man means we can’t be sure why he set himself on fire – a dispute over his entitlements may well have been the trigger for any number of other underlying issues. Or perhaps it wasn’t. But we do know the broader context.
The cuts to the various benefits to which we are all entitled should we lose our jobs or our health have been amongst the most savage. We saw earlier this week how the government’s war on jobs continues to drive up Treasury borrowing. Now we are reminded of the other side of this coin – the human cost.
When a policy is so clearly disastrous – it is failing in its own terms (government borrowing is going up as cuts undermine the economy) and it is destroying lives, it is important to ask why it is being pursued with so much vigour. And with unemployment benefit, it seems to me that there is a specific and clear agenda.
Cutting unemployment benefit has two clear impacts: it makes lives worse for people on benefits, and this in turn makes people more afraid of losing their jobs. If people are afraid of losing their jobs, they are less likely to organise with their colleagues. They are less likely to demand higher wages, they are less likely to complain about unsafe workplaces. They will accept an attrition of their conditions because they are afraid that doing otherwise will mean losing their job.
For most people, wages and conditions going up are good things. It means we get paid more. But it does do one thing – it hampers our success in the race to the bottom – it makes it less likely that big foreign companies will move here.
At the heart of the economic crisis across Europe is the lack of productive activities in our countries. We allowed bankers to decide where to invest the surplus we produced, and rather than investing in things which were good for our communities and so which created more real value, they gambled it away.
The real challenge in the UK economy therefore is the question of how we get investment in the sorts of productive activity that we want – how we re-build to fill the gaping hole left when the banks exploded. For Osborne, the answer is that we get big multinationals to move in to Britain. But he knows that the jobs that will come with those sorts of investment will be low wage, low skill jobs. He knows that those companies will only move here if workers here are willing to accept terrible pay and worse conditions.
One good way to discipline a workforce is to make them terrified of losing their jobs. And so by cutting benefits, Osborne is seeking to push conditions down so far that we can compete for investment from abroad. In this context, a man self-immolating on the evening news is the Treasury’s equivalent of Spartican crucifixions on the road to Rome, of Voltaire’s Admiral.
This strategy has a logic to it: the logic of a ruling elite who wish only to see their own wealth go up. For the rest of us, the answer to the question of where investment will come from is easier. With interest rates on government borrowing at a record low, with the Bank of England creating billions of new pounds in Quantitative Easing – but then handing it to the same bankers who have failed to sensibly invest so far, and with billions of tax being avoided, there is every opportunity to invest in the new industries and the new jobs that we’d all like to see – which are good for most people in this country.
But Osborne doesn’t want to do that. Because it’s better for his mates if he puts the fear of god into their employees – if he sends out a clear message that anyone who loses their job will be kicked once their down. Because that’s how he rolls.