Debates over benefits often illustrate the hegemony of capitalist ideas. The entire debate happens within the bounds of a class-based viewpoint.
Typically the debate is between those who say that “we” (who’s ‘we’, paleface?) have a duty of benevolence to those who are “unable to provide for themselves”, out of our charity and kindness, as a mark of our ‘civilised’ society, and those who disagree, or feel that although, yes, we should show such kindness, the poor – especially those who have the temerity to not even seek work (i.e. who usurp the right of idleness that belongs only to those with sufficient wealth) – really ought to be properly grateful, and if they don’t show appropriately industrious gratitude, it’s foolish of “us” to keep providing for them.
This whole debate takes place in a fantasy land. Let’s take the phrase “unable”. These people need “our” help because they are “unable to provide for themselves”. And people shouldn’t give birth to children who they are “unable to look after”. What does this mean?
Let’s take one of these people who is unable to provide for themselves. Their minds are fairly clear, so they can identify their own needs, say, hunger, or restlessness. And their eyes and ears work fine, so they can certainly identify where and how they might satisfy those needs – they can see where the supermarkets full of food are, where the sports grounds and computers and art studios are. They may well have skills and knowledge that they could use to operate machinery so as to do other people a favour, and their sensory organs can locate that machinery, the cars or production lines or whatnot. And there’s nothing wrong with their hands or feet, so they can walk up to this wealth and pick it up. They seem to be perfectly able to provide for themselves.
Where’s the catch? The catch is that if they do any of this, a strange group of people with big sticks and funny hats will appear and lay hands on them. They may well be put into a small room and locked there. They may well be put into an overcrowded small room and exposed to violence.
Now what could make people describe the fact that someone is violently prevented from doing something, as an ‘inability’? Two things: psychotic illness, or class society.
It almost sounds as though wealth were the physical excretion of the wealthy: the fact that one person ‘has’ £100,000 and another ‘has’ 10p is presented as a fact about them, when it’s really a fact about the rest of us and how we treat them.
The point about benefits is, each human being born into, say, British society, finds themselves surrounded by a sort of ‘ring of steel’: every house, every office building, every commodity, every vehicle, every bit of land or resource or useful equipment, save for a small portion, is “owned” – that is, those nasty men with the sticks and the hats will come and lock you in room 101 if you touch it.
Why is that? To some extent it’s because other people are using that stuff and we should be considerate of them. But that’s nowhere near accounting for the whole of it, because 1) a whole lot of stuff is not involved in anyone else’s personal life, the piles of stock in warehouses, the vast farms, the trains and buses, the empty buildings – all of these are just sitting there, being owned, and 2) this considerateness isn’t reciprocal: if I respect someone’s claim to the room that they sleep in, they won’t do anything to ensure that I have somewhere to sleep.
So mainly it’s because of a long history of motherfuckers. Various sorts thereof who own stuff for the purpose, not of using it, but of managing it (and those who do actually use it) so that they can appropriate a chunk of society’s production. This even applies to the stuff that was produced or built by people now dead, who clearly cannot personally own it. Someone else has got ‘ownership’ of it.
Anyway, so there’s you, the everyman, turning up in this vastly wealthy society, but surrounded by police (well, by virtual police, in some areas if you run fast you can be somewhere else before they become actual). You may be justifiably angry. You may say to yourself “these people who threaten me with assault and caging are motherfuckers, no more no less.” And you would have a point.
So what the government does, on behalf of class society, is to pay you off – to pay rent to humanity for its violent appropriation of such vast wealth. In terms of justice and political legitimacy, it really ought to be begging and scraping before you, saying “You are happy with our monopoly of violence, aren’t you? If you’re not, we can pay you a bit more, or maybe provide you with some more services. Would you like that? Go on, let us give you some more, we’d feel bad otherwise.”
Instead what they do is they twist it around, until you (that is, the non-violent side) are guilty and ashamed, ashamed of the indency of being marked out as one of the people they will beat up and cage if you don’t abstain from everything your ancestors built. How dare you be poor. Look at this wonderful system we set up for you, with perfect social mobility and a wholly equal starting point. Yet you decided, of your own free will, to not have any money. Well really.
Fine, we will keep you from starvation and let you sleep under a roof, but only because we’re nice. Say thank you. Go on, say it. Now why don’t you find some way that you can ‘contribute’ to us. Some nasty job. Go on, find some nasty job that you hate doing, and do it. Find some miserable employer who’ll treat you like shit. Go on, you deserve no better.
And if you don’t like it, you can “fend for yourself”. No, we don’t mean “act as you want, without us doing anything to either help or hinder you.” We mean “starve yourself until you are driven to break the taboo lines around, um, the entire social wealth, and then – we put you in the cage. There’s a couple of disturbed young men there who’d love to talk about their issues with you.
The point is, no government in the world has any right to morally judge people who just try to coast harmlessly through life on their ‘inheritance’ (i.e. their equal share of the social wealth built up by previous generations). Governments shouldn’t be putting ‘conditions’ on benefits, because they are trying to compensate people for the basic act of violence which constitutes them. If you assault someone and are told to pay compensation, you don’t set conditions, you don’t haggle it down as far as you can, you don’t say “I will pay only if my victim does something useful for me”. You pay up and you get the hell out.
That’s if you’re a decent person, but of course capitalist states are neither people nor decent. They are organisations for the indulgence of sado-altruism. If you thought my monologue a few paragraphs back sounded sadistic (in the bad, non-consensual way), that’s why: sadism is implicit in ‘charity’ and ‘benevolence’. Taking pleasure in doing good to those weaker than you is just one more way of fetishising the fact you are stronger than them. It’s very different from solidarity.