Friday, October 23, 2009

Hard choices?

Oh, why don’t you work, bum, like other men do?
How the hell can I work when there’s no work to do?

Joe Hill

A year after the great credit crunch it is becoming increasingly clear that so far as the bankers responsible for it are concerned, despite having been saved by the state at enormous cost from total perdition, things are to go on pretty much as before with no more than a few cosmetic regulatory improvements. The insatiable and sometimes suicidal greed exhibited by the masters of the universe truly stretches the imagination. Such reversion to perilous practice and mega-bonuses is being justified too with the old rhetoric – they are necessary to keep the system running, reward risk-taking and attract the highest quality of executive (presumably of the same sort who achieved such a magnificent results last time round).

Instead, it is no less clear that it is the public at large who are going to be made to endure the price of the colossal bailout figures that proved necessary to keep the financial centres, and through them the economy in general afloat. That was made apparent at the autumn conferences of all three factions of the Thatcherite party, each striving to outbid the other in the pain of inflictions they mean to inflict on the workforce in terms of cutting their incomes and social entitlements.

Hard choices
The rhetoric of ‘hard choices’ was much in vogue. It is especially infuriating to hear that phrase being used by individuals sitting in their comfort, security and large incomes when the hardness is to be imposed upon the most vulnerable and defenceless. Unemployment, already more persistent than at any time since 1940 will take off like a rocket and unemployment and disabled benefits will be cut to the bone and into the bone. Before long, no doubt, you’ll be expected to be ‘genuinely seeking work’ (to use an interwar governmental phrase) even if you should be ninety years old, blind, deaf and paraplegic (okay, I made up that last bit, but nowadays it sounds all too plausible).

Mark Perry in his Bread and Work: The Experience of Unemployment 1918-39, (published nine years ago) wrote that, ‘Much of what is offered by way of reform and innovation is clearly a regression to the situation pre-1945. The means testing of benefits, the rhetoric of the irresponsible growth of social services, the scare stories of dole abuse … are repeated now as then’. – and nearly a decade later it remains as true as ever. His quote from an American newspaper editorial of the thirties no doubt still represents the secret thoughts of some in high places, ‘Can’t let the utterly worthless starve? Maybe not, but if some plague were to come along … and wipe them all out, that would not be a tragedy but a big relief’.

Long term considerations
The establishment attitude to unemployment still remains in the Victorian era. According to this work is always available to anyone who searches for it diligently enough. According to classical economic theory genuine unemployment is impossible, what is required is willingness to accept reduced wages (an update in relation to Britain is that minimum wage legislation eliminates the threat of real starvation wages and removes any excuse for being workless). In the real world no doubt work always is available – in drug dealing, robbery, prostitution, pornography and suchlike, but these occupations are probably not what the proponents of this notion have in mind.

It seems all too probable that there will never be any real recovery from the current global depression, to give it its real name, (and if there were it would most likely only accelerate the approaching environmental catastrophe). In that case an implicit bargain in the developed between capitalism and its workforce will have decisively broken down – the promise that wage labour, whatever its disagreeable aspects, offers a long term future of security and tolerable living standards with the continuing prospect of further material improvement.

What that might mean in political terms is quite unforeseeable at present, but there is little to suggest that it is likely to be a very welcome prospect.