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.
Unemployment rates these days are so high. we really need some economic bailout. ”
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I’ll find out more and get back to you.
@lupin – are you saying that the laws have changed recently to protect workers more? because if not, if the laws have been the same, this cannot be the change which caused the cafes to shut.
Yeah, I was more trying to expand on what you said that disagree exactly. As I said I think you’re basically right.
@Ali – I don’t have time to respond in depth, but when I say “invest in the things we want”, I don’t just mean renewable energy, clearly that isn’t a solution. And as you say, and as I was trying to say, there is an internal logic to Osborne’s attempt to drive down wages and conditions. What I mean is using those leavers to build a worker owned (sustainable) and productive economy. Obviously I don’t know in detail what that would look like, but that’s why we need some kind of democratic process for allocating the capital so that we can work it out together…
I think this is generally correct, and it’s very important to see the reforms to welfare as not just a moral dislike of the poor or “lazy”, but a specific attempt to restructure our economy.
This piece by Aufheben (written towards the end of 2010 I think, and therefore slightly our of date already) is interesting on the historical context to welfare reform and workfare: http://libcom.org/library/renewed-imposition-work-era-austerity-prospects-resistance
I would probably phrase my reading of situation less in terms of an elite (unless we consider the capitalist class, to the extent that it exists as a set of people, or capital itself as constituting an elite) wanting to maintain their own wealth than an attempt to recreate our economy to fit within the bounds of capitalist realism given the global changes than have occurred in the last 20-40 years.
Meaning, that as China grows into the dominant pole of capital globally, and countries outside of Europe, Japan and North America begin to gain more political and economic power and move towards a more highly skilled, more automated and more highly paid workforce a kind of global balancing is occurring where we can’t continue to fund our lifestyles through exploiting other countries or continue to maintain ourselves through increasing debt and have to (within the bounds of what is deemed possible within capitalist realism), therefore, make our own economy ‘more competitive’; we have to drive down wages, conditions and labour costs generally here – which is where the welfare reforms come in.
So, while I think the neo-Keynesian, Krugman type line that all we really have is an allocation and management problem and by shifting capital back out of the financial sector into the real economy and increasing investment everything will be fine, ignores, on the one hand, what are at heart very real productive problems about creating sufficient surplus value (which is part of the reason so much capital ended up in finance in the first place and in particular in securitisation and sub-prime loans and so on – the search for yield), and on the other don’t fully account for the necessity of finance (particularly) under modern globalised capitalism.
Which is all to say that while investing more in new (green) technology is probably a good thing, by itself it doesn’t constitute a sufficient long-term strategy for the economy. Osborne’s plan, to an extent, does – though it’s certainly not one I agree with and which should be resisted.
In conclusion, our choice is essentially socialism or barbarism.
I’m writing this from France where I learn that many cafes and bars have been closing all over the place because the French laws protecting the rights of employees are so strong that many potential small employers just don’t dare employ anyone in case they can’t get rid of them if they turn out to be no good, or just not needed any more. I just mention this because, much as I don’t want to see a return to Dickensian conditions I do think that the actions of powerful unions can end up causing a reduction in the number of jobs there are. I’m sure that recession caused by the banking crisis and the Euro crisis are relevant as well – but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. I’m sorry about the man who set fire to himself. I can easily believe that he had an appalling experience at the hands of the DSS.