April Is The Cruellest Month
The Shadow of Atos/ Our “1930s Moment”: Malthusian Rhetoric/ The ‘Philpott’ Moral Panic: The Daily Mailthusian/ Scroungerology; O Beveridge Where Art Thou?/ “Retrospective Legislation”: Government Rewrites Its Own History/ Fit for Work: Poets Against Atos: A Timely Humanitarian Verse Intervention
The Shadow of Atos
Since writing the commodious ‘Supplemental Polemic’ to The Robin Hood Book – Verse Versus Austerity (also Caparison; 2011; reprint 2012), this writer has continued to document, hopefully more compendiously, the ongoing though broadly underreported vicissitudes of the attritive ‘Atos’ Work Capability Assessment (WCA) regime through editorials at The Recusant (www.therecusant.org.uk). This writer attempts to summarise here the main gist of his commentaries on the ‘Atos saga’ to date, up to April 2013.
Suffice it to say, as things currently stand, and in spite of continued controversies –mostly in the form of Panorama and Dispatches documentary impeachments of the atomistic French IT firm and its ‘target’-driven protocols to strip as many incapacitated claimants as possible of their benefits –the Government has, incomprehensibly, ‘extended’ Atos’s contract in order for them to carry out the now imminent (April 2013) “reassessments” of all those in receipt of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) towards consideration for the new Personal Independence Payment (“PIP”).
Such an inexplicable decision in the face of the growing opprobrium in which Atos is held by legion charities, campaigns, church spokespersons, medical professionals and even a sizeable proportion of MPs, would seem to emphasize not simply the craven complicity of the Government and DWP in the medical illegitimacy and ethical corner-cutting of the notorious WCAs, but also its clear commitment to a remorseless erosion of the wellbeing, security and rights of some of the most physically and mentally vulnerable people in this country. Judging by its effects so far, the objectives of the Atos-run WCAs can only be perceived as distinctly unsavoury, immoral and inhumane. Small wonder the very brutalist-sounding name ‘Atos’ – originally the even more atomistic-sounding ‘Atos Solutions’ – has embedded itself in much of the national consciousness as denoting bureaucratic impersonalism and protocolic ruthlessness.
But not merely that: somewhat ironically, ‘Atos’ has, by serving as an apparently unquestioning and purely functional agent of Iain Duncan Smith’s hair-shirted, punitive and claimant-stigmatising stewardship of the DWP, ultimately stigmatised itself, so that its name is conducive with precisely the opposite to what its own corporate spin hopes the public will believe: the intensification of the very incapacities in the sick and disabled claimants it is assessing, through the sheer stress, uncertainty and even despair its seemingly unaccountable protocols induce in them. This has been most tragically illustrated in the mounting cases of those incapacitated claimants who –whether during the WCA process, subsequent to being deemed “fit for work” and losing benefits, or during the appeals process to reinstate their entitlements – have either died prematurely from stress-accelerated health conditions, or even in some cases, taken their own lives.
Rarely does the British media report on this obfuscated WCA-associated death toll, which is why it has fallen on various campaign groups to document these cases, and in the case of the Black Triangle Campaign (set up after the suicide of Scottish playwright Paul Reekie in June 2010, aged 48), The Spartacus Report and Calum’s List (http://calumslist.org/), put them into the public domain via the internet. Public accessibility to these catalogues of fatalities associated with the WCA regime has been at times ‘elliptical’, punctuated by sudden and inexplicable ‘Forbidden’ pages suddenly cropping up via the conventional search engines –a deeply suspicious anomaly which has only exacerbated the soreness of the Atos scandals themselves. Partly for this reason, this writer decided to reproduce the full Calum’s List at the front of the reprint of The Robin Hood Book, seeming like a safer place to publish it, since, as yet, this society has not quite got to the stage of burning books or dissenting literature –it’s eminently easier, and less messy, for certain auspices to anonymously censor online information. At the time of the aforementioned reprint, back in summer 2012, Calum’s List totalled around 23 individual fatalities, practically all of which were directly related to the stresses of the WCAs and/or to subsequent loss of benefits in spite of genuine and even chronic physical and mental health conditions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, and tragically, the list has expanded since autumn 2012 and through into 2013, now standing at 30 documented fatalities (many of which were suicides). The full unexpurgated list can be viewed at http://calumslist.org
But the overall scale of WCA-associated casualties and fatalities is even higher than most of us have compassed yet: it was estimated as of August 2012 that there have so far been 91 deaths where welfare reform has had some mention in dispatches as to culpability. The Daily Mirror discovered that, between January and August 2011, 1,100 claimants died after they were put into Iain Duncan-Smiths DWP “work-related activity group” (“Wrag”). It is estimated that up to 32 claimants die each week after being found “fit for work”. We can only speculate now, in April 2013, just how higher that total as risen since last August. And yet, to reiterate, in spite of these deeply distressing fatalities and suicides connected to the WCAs, in August 2012, the Government awarded Atos a new contract to “reassess” all DLA claimants for eligibility for the incoming Personal Independence Payment (“PIP”) which is rolling in this month (April 2013). The Atos-associated death toll proves incontrovertibly and appallingly just how broken the WCA regimen is, an opinion now commonly held by many MPs, by the related parliamentary Select Committee, and bolstered increasingly by the fact that around 40% of all tribunal appeals against WCA “fit for work” decisions find in favour of the appellants.
Whichever way Iain Duncan Smith might choose to look –invariably into his own private fantasy world it would seem!– the statistics scream out that the Atos WCAs are a catastrophic failure, and one which is literally costing the lives of hundreds on hundreds of sick and disabled people –a very real human catastrophe happening all the time around us but which much of the public are still apparently unaware of. But the crowning irony has to be that the very agency used to decide whether or not disabled claimants are “fit for work” is itself morally, ethically, practically and medically unfit for purpose –while this Tory-led government is demonstrably unfit to govern. To use phrenological or eugenics-inflected terminology which would normally be applied to the so-called “ASBOs” and “feral underclass” (Kenneth Clarke’s phrase), what this country is currently the victim of is ‘Conservative recidivism’: a perpetual cycle of repetitive ‘anti-social’ behaviour enacting through passive-aggressive legislation.
Our “1930s Moment”: Malthusian Rhetoric
By coincidence, this writer is currently re-reading Richard Overy’s absorbing albeit bleak book on the inter-war years in Britain, chiefly the Thirties, The Morbid Age (2010), which, in its depth and scope, is in many ways the more melancholic prequel to the relative mood-stabiliser of David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain (2007). In Overy’s chapter ‘A Sickness in the Racial Body’, the main focus is on some of the Twenties and Thirties’ intelligentsia and literati’s flirtation with eugenics, that is, the scientific philosophy that those deemed “unfit” or “genetically defective” in physical or psychiatric senses, should be sterilised in order to stem what was perceived then as a higher reproduction among the “unfit” compared to the “fit” –which in turn was seen as a potential threat to the future vitality, even survival, of the human race.
Such theories originated with 19th century theorist Thomas Malthus and his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), which essentially argued for economic necessity of tighter control of population growth, particularly amongst the lower classes. ‘Malthusianism’ then mutated through the theories (circa 1866) of Gregor Mendel, which claimed that since all human characteristics were inherited, it must be possible for all defective traits –such as physical and mental disability, genetic diseases, ‘feeblemindedness’ etc.– to be ‘bred out of human populations’ (a theory which, strangely, was triggered by Mendel’s apiarist pastime of breeding bees). Malthusianism is the cousin of ‘social Darwinism’, the philosophy which extrapolates Darwin’s theory of ‘natural selection’ (i.e. ‘survival of the fittest’ as implicit in the dynamics of the natural world) and hypothetically applies it to human society.
Thirties eugenics theories were very much in the vein of what came to be described as ‘Mendelism’. Organisations arguing for mass sterilisation of those citizens deemed “defective” cropped up all over the place during the Thirties, such as the Malthusian League, the Eugenics Society and euphemistically grisly-sounding ‘British Social Hygiene Council’ (indeed, more ‘media savvy’ eugenics proselytisers of the period opted for the euphemism “social hygiene” in place of the more clinical-sounding “eugenics”, and phrases such as “social problem groups” in place of the more brutal tag of “unfit” or “defectives”).
The reason this writer feels such a topic is germane to this polemic is because of the chillingly similar use of language between the polemic of the Thirties’ eugenicists and that of today’s “fit for work” governmental rhetoric –not least in the parallel use of pathological diction to describe perceived societal problems, such as “sick society”, or the terminology of physiological addiction as in “welfare dependency” etc., a medically-tinged vocabulary which was typical of the self-perceived ‘neurasthenic’ generation between the world wars (and which was of course ultimately augmented to its most terrible degree by Hitler later in that same decade).
Inescapably, one can immediately recognise in such past theories some of the attitudinal seeds currently sprouting in contemporary Tory social policy: chiefly such recent announcements as the replacement of “cash handouts” in the form of “crisis loans” with “food vouchers” or “payment cards” for any unemployed claimants caught between benefits payments [http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/mar/26/payment-cards-emergency-assistance-food-stamps] –which will further stigmatise said claimants in a far more visible and tangible form than before by a symbolic control of their spending habits by government –one wonders what next? Clothes vouchers exchangeable for a new Black Triangle Range in the retail chains? There is also the Tory post-2015 proposals to withdraw state assistance for any fourth child or more (recently lowered by Iain Duncan Smith to any ‘third’ child) born into unemployed households, and to cap the entire welfare budget to a strict limit for the first time ever. The latter proposal in particular would appear to be a passive-aggressive administrative equivalent to active Malthusianism; a kind of ‘fiscal sterilisation’ of the poor –palpably, its philosophy is indistinguishable from that of Thirties eugenics, as this excerpt from The Morbid Age (‘Chapter 3: A Sickness in the Racial Body’) shows:
Birth control, it was reported [in the ‘Programme’ for the 1933 British ‘Malthusian Ball’ of the Birth Control Movement] would be one of the few ‘mixed blessings’ for humankind were it not for the uncongenial fact that it was practised chiefly by those who could afford to raise children in a civilised setting, while the rate of population increase ‘was greatest among those social classes and communities’ unable to supply their offspring with ‘the necessaries of civilised life’. The ‘disadvantageous differential birth-rate’ … could be recalibrated not by advocating celibacy or abstinence but through vigorous propaganda to get the least advantaged to produce fewer children. The Ball raised £450 to help in furthering the cause of Malthusian restriction.
Is not the future Tory proposal to effectively ‘cap’ the number of children born to unemployed families through material means basically a policy of ‘Malthusian restriction’? This is what the Tory Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said in October 2012:
Essentially it's about the amount of money that you pay to support how many children, and what is clear to the general public, that they make decisions based on what they can afford for the number of children they have. That is the nature of what we all do.
Where you see the clustering of the large families is really down at the very lowest incomes, those on significant levels of welfare, and those on the very top incomes. In other words, the problem for those who are paying the taxes, paying the bills – they make the decisions about their lives, even if they sometimes would like to maybe have extra children, they make decisions.
People who are having support through welfare are often free from that decision. We want to support people if they have children when they are out of work, of course. But can there not be a limit to the fact that really you need to remember you need to cut your cloth in accordance with what capabilities and what finances you have?
In a Comment is Free Guardian piece of 18 February 2012, Jonathan Freedland provided the following insightful exposition of the eugenics mindset:
…one of the grisliest skeletons in the cupboard of the British intellectual elite, a skeleton that rattles especially loudly inside the closet of the left …is eugenics, the belief that society’s fate rested on its ability to breed more of the strong and fewer of the weak. So-called positive eugenics meant encouraging those of greater intellectual ability and “moral worth” to have more children, while negative eugenics sought to urge, or even force, those deemed inferior to reproduce less often or not at all.
According to Dennis Sewell, whose book The Political Gene charts the impact of Darwinian ideas on politics, the eugenics movement’s definition of “unfit” was not limited to the physically or mentally impaired. It held, he writes, “that most of the behavioural traits that led to poverty were inherited. In short, that the poor were genetically inferior to the educated middle class.” It was not poverty that had to be reduced or even eliminated: it was the poor. …we need a reckoning with this shaming past. Such a reckoning would focus less on today’s advances in selective embryology, and the ability to screen out genetic diseases, than on the kind of loose talk about the “underclass” … Progressives face a particular challenge, to cast off a mentality that can too easily regard people as means rather than ends.
But this writer’s points here can best be illustrated with comparisons between the eugenics rhetoric of the Thirties [excerpted from Overy’s The Morbid Age, ‘Chapter 3: A Sickness in the Racial Body’] and the Tory and red-top anti-welfare rhetoric of today –the similarities are not so much in the ‘specifics’ of what is being said, but in the tone, attitude and use of language, that together denote fundamental philosophical parallels [this writer underscores some of the most chilling rhetorical parallels]:
What are we going to do? Every defective man, woman and child is a burden. Every defective is an extra body for the nation to feed and clothe, but produces little or nothing in return. Every defective needs care, and immobilises a certain quantum of energy and goodwill which could otherwise be put to constructive ends. Every defective is an emotional burden – a sorrow to someone, and in himself, a creature doomed, when unassisted, to live an incomplete and sub-human existence. Not only that, but if their numbers continue to increase, the burden … will gradually drag us all down.
Julian Huxley, ‘What Are We To Do With Our Mental Defectives?’, 1930
While we’ve been putting in place a sensible, modern welfare system … our opponents have shown they are on the side of Britain’s something-for-nothing culture.
David Cameron, after Royal Assent for the Welfare ‘Reform’ Bill, March 2012
What precisely is this “something-for-nothing culture” is supposed to be beyond the gobbledegook of tabloid-spun hyperbole? We all know what’s implied by the phrase: that anyone receiving tax-funded state benefits while out of work is essentially receiving a “handout”, i.e. something ‘unearned’, thus “something” for “nothing”. Only in the case of most claimants it isn’t a “handout” because they have worked previously and so already paid into the benefits system. Moreover, this so-called “something” of state assistance is not received for “nothing”: jobseekers –and even increasingly the incapacitated– are expected to be actively seeking work on a weekly basis, which is in itself a form of ‘work’, and to attend jobcentre appointments or other “work-related activities” (hence the new term “Wrag” for “Work-related activity group”), and all while simultaneously having to budget their paltry “handouts” to last them each fortnight, to cover food expenditure, bills, rent and council tax. It would seem, in the Tories' case, they're seeking to match a perceived 'nothing' with another 'nothing', so 'nothing-for-nothing' then!?
But the unemployed ‘claimant’ is doing “something” for “something”: quite apart from all these aforementioned chores and conditional obligations, they also have to contend with living in relative impoverishment and all the associated stigmas attached to it. From this point of view, the average claimant more than ‘earns’ their relative fortnightly pittance. And add to that the Tory-driven new ‘conditions’ of hundreds of thousands forced to do voluntary community, charity or retail work, not only are many earning their benefits, but they are actually earning, in principle, far more than that which the state begrudgingly allows them –an equivalent to way under the minimum wage. It is, then, in many cases, the Government, the DWP and their corporate sponsors who are getting “something” for “nothing”; it is they who are the true “benefit cheats” of our society, by cynically cheating those who are on benefits.
These themes also tap into some of this writer’s other reading of late, namely a fascinating work on philology (broadly, the use of language) and its political application in determining social behaviour, Language In Thought And Action by S.I. Hayakawa (1968). The chapter ‘Language and Survival’ begins with a profound quote from one James Harvey Robinson, an American historian, and it takes issue specifically with the perennial phrase “something for nothing”:
One cannot but wonder at this constantly recurring phrase “getting something for nothing”, as if it were the peculiar and perverse ambition of disturbers of society. Except for our animal outfit, practically all we have is handed to us gratis. Can the most complacent reactionary flatter himself that he invented the art of writing or the printing press, or discovered his religious, economic, and moral convictions, or any of the devices which supply him with meat and raiment or any of the sources of such pleasures as he may derive from literature of the fine arts? In short, civilisation is little else than getting something for nothing.
Try telling that to the Tories! Hayakawa then expands on this Robinsonian hypothesis, by framing our species’ inheritance thus:
The cultural accomplishments of the ages … and the discoveries of all the arts and sciences come to us as free gifts from the dead.
Hayakawa is also clearly a humanitarian in his view that humanity is by its nature a collective species which survives not through the application of crude social Darwinian principles of ‘survival of the fittest’, but, conversely, through the opposite traits of cooperativeness, compassion and mutual help, all, in his view as a philologist, dependent on humanity’s unique characteristic of speech –a survival imperative reliant on verbalisation:
Human “fitness to survive” means the ability to talk and write and listen and read in ways that increase the chances for you and fellow-members of your species to survive together. [Hayakawa’s italics].
This, indeed, echoes the hoary Aristotlean phrase, anthropon politikon zoion: man is a social (political) animal.
But of course, as anyone can plainly see, the true and ultimate “something for nothing culture of entitlement” is that of the hereditary aristocracy whose members mostly inherit their wealth and property, so through no work or effort of their own; and tracing back in many lineages, these inheritances are in fact the fruits of others’ labours from previous generations of workers exploited and profited from by their forebears. Capitalism is the ultimate “something for nothing” philosophy, since it is based on accumulation of capital and profit which is invariably accrued through ruthless underpayment of workers, short-changing of customers by pricing products above their true value, or, as if often the case, through financial speculation, stocks and shares, and tax avoidance and evasion, none of which could constitute the true notion of ‘work’, even if capitalists will commonly use the phrase “getting your money to work for you”. It is yet another historical irony that it is unregulated capitalist and speculative behaviours that led ultimately to both the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the global crash of 2008, and, in turn, to the Depressions of the Thirties and the Twenty-Teens, and the kind of eugenic-oriented rhetoric used by capitalist governments of both decades when they are faced with near-bankruptcy and need a convenient fiscal scapegoat.
So to return to the parallels with Thirties eugenics rhetoric, here is another excerpt from Overy’s The Morbid Age:
Although eugenists accepted that birth control could in principle help in the fight to limit the births of those regarded as hereditarily unfit, they doubted the capacity of ‘the mentally backward and feckless’ to practice birth control responsibly while they deplored the fact that limitation was mainly practised by those very classes whose fertility they were most anxious to promote.
And here is an uncannily similarly worded slice of tabloid rhetoric from recent years:
TODAY The Sun is declaring war on feckless benefits claimants to slash the £5BILLION wasted in Britain’s shambolic handouts culture. Hundreds of thousands of scroungers in the UK are robbing hard-working Sun readers of their cash. They cannot be bothered to find a job or they claim to be sick when they are perfectly capable of work because they prefer to sit at home watching widescreen TVs — paid for by YOU.
The Sun, 12 Aug 2010 (though could be from practically any Sun leader on welfare)
And another red-top snippet from only last month:
Our welfare state is just rewarding feckless behaviour. Under the last Labour administration a burgeoning new class emerged, the feckless underclass. …
The Daily Express, 8 March 2013 (though could be from practically any Express leader on welfare)
Back to Overy again:
The Eugenics Society …established sub-committees to investigate one category each of the ‘social problem group’ – those on welfare, those with psychiatric diseases, epileptics, criminals, slum dwellers, the unemployed, prostitutes, inebriates and ‘casuals’.
Compare with government acronyms such as “NEET”: “Not in Education or Training”, or “the stock”, which refers to those currently in receipt of benefits as opposed to the “flow”, which are the new incoming claimants.
Over to Overy again:
Most of the eugenic establishment rejected state murder as the answer (it is worth recalling that when both euthanasia and the lethal chamber were introduced in Hitler’s Germany a few years later the whole programme was kept veiled from the public), but there were plenty who saw dysgenic breeding as something to be penalised and stigmatised.
And this from the Express in 2013:
…benefit vouchers to fund essentials such as food and fuel – not for those who have paid into the system all their lives and need help when they lose their jobs but for those who are drug users or alcoholics, those who have mental illness and those who have previously committed benefit fraud. …Neither should the state fund uncontrolled childbirth. …When the state funds feckless families there is no limit to the children they can have as they are guaranteed funding. Child benefit should be restricted to three children. A larger family is a lifestyle choice. …If you start to withdraw benefits and instead channel the money into schemes that directly benefit the children then that is a first step to weaning them off the taxpayer. …You cannot imagine many deadbeat parents using benefits to buy a book to help their children read before they start school. …Until it is made worthwhile for everyone to work, to contribute and to be decent neighbours there will be more parasites…
The Daily Express, 8 March 2013 by Janice Atkinson
Ms Atkinson’s deeply offensive and slanderous invective is one of the more disturbing examples of tabloid benefits-bashing which is typical of frequent front page ‘news’ stories on the Express. Note her eugenics-like vocabulary here: “feckless”, “weaning”, “parasites” (the distinctly eugenics-inflected term “breed” is also coming back into fashion in contemporary tabloid vocabulary); note, too, her deeply disparaging, not to say defamatory juxtaposition of those with “mental illness” alongside “drug addicts” and “alcoholics” as those deemed not to deserve state assistance in cash –not that this writer would agree that those perceived as having lapsed into self-destructive addictions such as drink and drugs should be deprived of cash assistance, but to lump in “mental illness”, which, although sometimes related to drug or drink abuse, is more often than not hereditary (as in neurological illnesses), or has developed endogenously within individuals, either in response to traumas or due to a deficit of serotonin in the brain (as in most cases of neurosis and depression –hence the massive growth of the pharmaceutical antidepressant industry over the decades), is to effectively stigmatise the sufferers as if they have in some sense brought their illnesses on themselves. Ms Atkinson also produced a trope which more than betrayed the ‘intellectual’ heritage of eugenics: ‘But now they have been re-categorised for fear of stigmatising them, as “troubled” families rather than problem ones’ –one of the eugenicists’ favourite phrases was the “social problem group”. (It is worth noting too that the Express –along with the equally anti-welfare Daily Star– is owned by Richard Desmond, Britain’s 57th richest man, who amassed most of his £950 million fortune through the porn industry –an unlikely candidate, one would think, to set himself up as moral judge of the poor and unemployed, nor indeed of anyone at all!).
The ‘Philpott’ Moral Panic & The Daily Mailthusian
It was seemingly most propitious for the Tories and right-wing tabloids that the full horror and sordidness of the ‘Philpott’ arson case and related sentencing came into the news literally within days of the escalating backlash of a growing section of the public against the tsunami of benefits caps, cuts and the scabrous “bedroom tax” coming into force on 1st April 2013. This sudden morbid media re-focus on this horrendous incident, and particularly on its ‘benefit-claimant’ culprit, fell like manna into the laps of the right-wing tabloids and Tory ministers –the latter now gifted unexpected respite from days on end of attempting and failing to morally justify the dismantlement of the welfare state and the mass eviction of hundreds of thousands of families in social housing deemed to have “spare rooms”.
Unsurprisingly, it was the Daily Mail (or Daily Mailthusian as it might more accurately be known) which splurged on this deeply disingenuous and partly spurious narrative-link between the horrific crime of one singularly immoral and manipulative individual and the so-called “culture of entitlement” and “idleness” apparently so engrained in our welfare state, and thus rhetorically targeted by the likes of Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne –even though, as is conveniently omitted in all media coverage, both of Philpott’s wives were actually in work, and he himself was clearly more a case of being chronically ‘unemployable’ rather than necessarily “making a lifestyle choice”. Nevertheless, the anti-tax brigades were soon out in force decrying the fact that their ‘hard-earned taxes’ had basically “paid” for the “lifestyle” of this ‘feral’ serial wife-abuser and his Mormon-sized brood of state-subsidised kids –to the tune of, in any case, a rather measly £8,000 child benefit and tax credits per for six children (which works out as £1,333 per child per year –hardly a fortune!).
Broad tabloid ‘scroungermongering’ as par for the course, it was the Mail which most blatantly and disgracefully splashed with a front page leader, in typically elephantine letters, which read more like a Malthusian dialectical statement than a newspaper headline: ‘VILE PRODUCT OF WELFARE UK’ –while the subtitle really spelt out in its own vile phraseology the true Malthusianism inherent in this malodorous paper: ‘Man who bred 17 babies by five women to milk benefits system is guilty of killing six of them’: the visceral, dehumanising term ‘bred’ is straight out of the eugenics textbook.
That this headline’s foul piece of eugenics-style propaganda was not even window-dressed as rhetorical by ending in a question mark, by which to provoke debate rather than poisonously imply some ineluctable fact, speaks volumes for the juvenile-level moralistic mentality of the paper. But of course the Tories and tabloids don’t want a debate: they just want to demonise those without a voice in order to justify the deplorable benefits caps. For the likes of moralising Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, of course, such isolated but easily exploited incidents feed straight into his absolutist ‘work’ ethic dialectics as giving further legitimacy to the hoary old adage, ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’.
While privately grateful Tory ministers might pretend publicly that they do not hold such a morally reductive view in terms of any obvious narrative of “welfare dependency” and the psychopathic behaviour of Philpott, they still salivated over the fresh opportunity to resuscitate their hitherto waning anti-welfare rhetoric in order to justify the mass impoverishment of hundreds of thousands of the poorest families in the nation. Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, Chancellor von Osborne –himself the personification a very different, more vicarious silver-spooned ‘vileness’ to the outwardly grotesque kind manifest in Philpott– had no hesitation in capitalising on this suggestive ‘moral lead’ in pretty much rhetorically echoing the primitive and decidedly warped histrionics of the Mail. Those expecting anything other than the usual sweeping generalisations and malicious ‘scroungermongering’ so typical of rags such as the Mail were not disappointed by the distinctly eugenics-inflected lexicon of the front page story itself. The authors of this despicable piece of anti-welfare propaganda masquerading as moral outrage at a horrific crime, Andy Dolan and Paul Bentley, waste no time in staking out their dialectical territory:
The drug-taking layabout, who embodies everything that is wrong with the welfare state, was still smiling even after being convicted of killing six of his children.
But the most heinous and reprehensible article to appear in the Mail of the same date was a related ‘feature’ by A.N. Wilson, whose status as a ‘writer’ and ‘historian’ might have signified to readers that there would follow a slightly more culturally informed take on this tragic incident –but not so: Wilson showed even less self-restraint in tub-thumping proverbial tabloid anti-claimant rhetoric and stigmatisation than the hack leader-writers. While we might expect trashy headlines and gutter-level ‘stories’ from the likes of the universally derided Mail, we’re not necessarily so prepared for allegedly 'well-educated' [Note: Wilson wento to Rugby then New College Oxford; while Cameron wento Eton and Balliol Oxford, and Osborne, Westminster and Magdalen Oxford: there is an educational pattern to these Malthusians of the Thatcherite generation it seems!] and ‘literary’ individuals to come out with the same unthinkingly reactionary, knee-jerk and Malthusian rhetoric as the tabloid savages –but in this regard ‘writer’ A.N. Wilson did not disappoint.
Under the insidiously phrased title ‘Michael Philpott is a perfect parable for our age: His story shows the pervasiveness of evil born out of welfare dependency’, Wilson managed to stigmatise the welfare state and practically the entire claimant population along with it in perhaps the most dangerous and pernicious way possible by so glaringly juxtaposing the terms “evil” with “welfare”. This title alone could have just as easily come from the mouth of Oswald Mosley (though this would a private badge of honour for the Mail, notorious for its headline in January 1934: HURRAH FOR THE BLACKSHIRTS! –Mr. Wilson could have told us that!). But this scabrous title is as nothing to the outpouring of eugenics-like rhetoric and poisonous propaganda that constituted Wilson’s lengthy, tar-brushing, hatred-inciting, anti-claimant diatribe –and once again, as with Ms Atkinson’s aforementioned discriminatory rant in the Express, this writer excerpts the most offensive parts, underscoring the unambiguously Malthusian vocabulary employed which is indistinguishable from the lexicon of eugenics:
The trial spoke volumes about the sheer nastiness of the individuals involved. But it also lifted the lid on the bleak and often grotesque world of the welfare benefit scroungers — of whom there are not dozens, not hundreds, but tens of thousands in our country.
It’s important to note here, in just the third paragraph of what is in effect a Malthusian Manifesto rather than anything remotely resembling a fair and balanced piece of journalism, that Wilson instantly renders his ‘polemic’ undeserving of our serious engagement by using such unsubstantiated and debate-sapping terms as “scroungers” in his narrative; while we also might note the explicit and brazen tar-brushing of vast sections of the unemployed as de facto “scroungers”.
His story throws into surreal relief the row between the Tories and Labour this week about Iain Duncan Smith’s much-needed benefit reforms. While the Left and the Church cry that they are unfair and immoral, the Government argues calmly that what is immoral is leaving families such as Michael Philpott’s to languish on benefits for generations. …The children owed their existence to his desire to milk the welfare system.
Talk about received propaganda and pre-packaged phrases! Wilson rants on:
But where did all this evil come from? Evil no doubt comes from the heart of human beings and we are all capable, in one way or another, of wrongdoing. And yet, and yet... throughout this painful trial, as the evidence was so slowly and painstakingly heard, it was impossible not to think of it as a hateful parable of our times.
‘Impossible’ for ‘scroungermongers’ such as Wilson ‘not to think’ of such warped ‘parables’ to suit his own twisted dialectic designed to deflect public focus on the ‘feral’ capitalist behaviours of the financial elites which caused our current economic meltdown and instead highlight the ‘exceptions to the rule’ to fit a specious and malignant paradigm of ‘undeserving poor’ and ‘benefit cheats’. Wilson then effortlessly lurches on to ring-fencing another isolated context relating to a Scottish housing estate referred to as ‘The Scheme’ in order to shoehorn-in the bogus relativism so beloved of right-wingers by which they juxtapose the ‘real poverty’ of the Third World with the relative ‘never had it so good’ of the British poor:
But the people living on the scheme are not poor by the standards of those living in the slums of Mumbai, let alone struggling for survival in famine-stricken north-east Africa. The houses on the scheme are heated, they have bathrooms and lavatories and kitchens and television sets — as did the Philpott house in Derby.
[‘Not poor’ rather echoes Iain Duncan Smith’s famously sanguine and wilfully ignorant comment in criticisms to his mass impoverishment of the already poor: “But they’re not suffering”]. Mmm, disgraceful isn’t it Mr Wilson? The unemployed being allowed to have bathrooms and inside toilets! Whatever next? Shove them back into slums with one shared outside toilet as in the ‘good old days’ of the pre-welfare state Thirties!? Rapidly this is starting to happen anyway with the new “doughnut ghettoes” engineered through “gentrification” (i.e. “social cleansing” of the poor) of the inner-cities. Wilson dribbles on:
It was the next generation down, the ones who had been corrupted by the benefits system, who were trapped in a cycle of drug abuse, criminality, prison and a pathetic inability to see that they had done anything wrong. Like Michael Philpott, they were moral degenerates.
Note the latter phrase of Wilson’s: this is unambiguously the terminology of eugenics. One wonders what the PCC will have to say about this? Next picking on the ‘feral underclass’, Wilson plays disingenuous moral judge:
Likewise, when the others on the scheme were found drug dealing, pilfering, scrounging, lying or indulging in acts of violence, it was never their fault. Always someone else’s fault, or a bit of bad luck.
But many today might more reasonably associate such an attitudinal description as perfectly fitting those attitudes and behaviours of expenses-fiddling, property-flipping MPs and the economy-busting bankers and speculators, practically all of whom perpetually refuse to admit to –let alone apologise for– their misdemeanours while in high office, but who are –unlike most of the perceived ‘deviant’ poor– sufficiently educated in semantic obfuscation as to phrase their public responses to having been blatantly found out with their hands in the till in such ways as to remove themselves from any blame, culpability or moral responsibility (e.g. the old chestnut, “It is regrettable that this happened” when speaking of one’s own behaviour and ‘choice’ to commit a premeditated crime). Back to Herr Wilson:
Yet the particular manner in which his nastiness was exercised, and the way in which he lived, was the direct consequence of his being able to live scot-free at the expense of the taxpayer. This was a family, and a collection of human beings, who were on benefits the way other people are on drugs. Many, of course, are on both, for idleness breeds depression…
Note the Malthusian phrasing of ‘a collection of human beings’, and the deeply offensive implication that ‘depression’ is bred purely by ‘idleness’. Then Wilson resorts back to rummaging around in the slough of eugenics terminology:
Philpott was always on the dole, never looking for a job, always on the scrounge. His house was paid for, his utterly feckless way of life was paid for, his children were paid for, by taxpayers.
Wilson then launches into a capitalist-justifying treatise on the aetiology of the August 2011 riots in yet another bid to defend our property-grabbing, capital-accumulating nation of buy-to-let property speculators:
Whole blocks of flats, whole tenement buildings are filled with drug-taking benefit fraudsters, scroungers and people on the make. The riots that began in Tottenham, North London, two summers ago, and then spread to other British cities, showed what has happened to Britain as a result of the perversion of our benefits system. We have turned into a country where ordinary morality — the simple concept that you do not take what is not yours — does not seem to register in whole rafts of society.
No, the ‘concept’ of not taking ‘what is not yours’ has certainly died a death in post-Thatcherite society where bankers and speculators have bled our economy dry and then come to the government for bail outs from ‘taxpayers’ money’ in order to continue their obscene financial behaviours buoyed entirely on gambling away other peoples’ money. Small wonder with such ‘feral’ behaviours rampant at the top of our society that some of the more disadvantaged sections of society saw an opportunity to loot and took it. In Jungian terms, much of the ‘feral’ behaviours of the riots was the mass ‘shadow play-acting’ of the abysmal and immoral ‘standards’ of naked self-interest and greed projected out to wider society from the political and financial elites. What Cameron and his minted chums could not bear to recognise in the riots was basically the symbolic public hawking through the streets of the nation of that dingily grotesque and corruption-ravaged Dorian Gray portrait that is the hidden and unacceptable face of feral capitalism and all its rapaciously grasping and anti-social traits. Still Wilson grunts on in his old fantasy-world of tautological rhetoric:
What the Philpott trial showed was the pervasiveness of evil caused by benefit dependency. The welfare state, which was designed to provide a safety net for those in genuine need, worked only in those vanished times, more than half a century ago, when there remained a culture of honesty…
Perhaps, but where did the culture of dishonesty come from? This writer would again point the finger right back to the greed-rampage of the Thatcherite Eighties. When talking of Beveridge and the other architects of the welfare state, Wilson then notes:
They were heroes with the most honourable of intentions, determined that the conditions they had witnessed during the 1930s and the war — hungry children suffering from rickets and tuberculosis, appalling housing conditions, the persecution of the unemployed — would never come to Britain again.
And yet such terrible aspects of chronic poverty will indeed ‘come to Britain again’ as a direct result of the very relentless stigmatising rhetoric and socially apocalyptic policies of the Tories that Wilson himself is supporting –or does he, like Iain Duncan Smith, seriously believe taking what little subsistence the poor have through the welfare cuts and rendering many of them street-homeless by the despicable housing benefit caps will somehow serve as a preventative to the return of ‘hungry children’? There are already tens of thousands of those, as we know from many reports on schoolchildren fainting in classrooms for having had no breakfast. Appalling housing conditions have never really gone away, at least, not in the slum-ridden private rental sector. And the sheer gall of Wilson to refer to ‘the persecution of the unemployed’ as a thing of the past when ‘scroungerology’ is at its all-time peak in 2013, and when, demonstrably, the author is himself blatantly promoting ‘persecution of the unemployed’ with this very article.
Next Wilson launches into a knowingly ignorant misrepresentation of the shocking moral scandal of today which is the scabrous, Atos-run work capability assessment regime –universally criticised by medical professionals and legion charities and campaign groups, even referred to by some as tantamount to “bureaucratic euthanasia”:
Are we really so infirm as a nation? Evidently not, given that since the Government brought in tougher tests, 878,000 people have chosen not to be reassessed, while a further 837,000 have been declared fit for work.
Wilson conveniently neglects to mention that on average 70% of those 837,000 ‘declared fit for work’ have had their benefits reinstated after tribunal appeals found that such medically illegitimate, target-driven misjudgements were entirely bogus; he also neglects to mention that most of the 878,000 claimants who have ‘chosen not to be reassessed’ have done so not because they weren’t genuinely sick or disabled, but because many of them couldn’t cope with the unreasonable stress of the inhumanely choreographed WCA process, which makes vulnerable people –particularly the mentally ill who already suffer rock-bottom self-esteem and stigmatisation– feel like they are simply economic burdens (again, in line with eugenics attitudes), while an increasing number resort to taking their own lives rather than continue to fight just for the right to exist.
What A.N. Wilson is doing here, essentially, is stirring up what sociologists would term a ‘moral panic’: he is wilfully fanning the flames of anti-welfarism already rampant throughout British society by targeting an isolated tragedy which, alone, he is judging on its relative social context in a cynical and dangerous attempt to pump up the government-tabloid stigmatisation campaign against the welfare state in order to justify the mass pauperisation of many of its existent claimants; Wilson is using Philpott as a flagship ‘folk devil’ to serve as a spurious personification not of what is an endogenous psycho-pathology (arguably more the product of a desensitising capitalist system) but of what is (in any case, a growingly vestigial) entity of social support for the poorest in society, the –in any case, increasingly vestigial– welfare state, the last threadbare safety net for all those millions historically displaced, exploited and impoverished by remorseless, irrational, hyper-competitive and fundamentally immoral ‘feral’ capitalism, a system which mercilessly perpetuates the unsustainable anti-society of overproduction and under-consumption. And it is the inevitable ‘under-consumption’, due to lack of money and ever-rising prices, that the welfare state came into being to ameliorate. Capitalism is not simply a case of “poverty in the midst of plenty” but also, as Communist writer Tom Wintringham pointed out in the Thirties, of “poverty caused by plenty”.
We might remind ourselves here of a passage from Cyril Connolly’s polemical novel Enemies of Promise (1938) which presents a rubric in which Mr. A.N. Wilson would seem to perfectly fit:
Capitalism in decline, as in our own country, is not much better a patron [of the Arts] than fascism. Stagnation, fear, violence and opportunism, the characteristics of capitalism preparing for the fray, are no background for a writer, and there is a seediness, an ebb of life, a philosophy of taking rather than giving, a bitterness and brutality about right-wing writers now which was absent in those other days, in seventeenth-century Churchmen or eighteenth-century Tories…
Back to 2013: Zoe Williams of The Guardian gallantly lambasted the Mail for its almost atavistic capitalisation of what amounts to an isolated psychopathic atrocity perpetrated by one distinctly unpleasant individual as the start of a new chapter in the stigmatisation of the welfare state, while rightly calling on all readers to do as she had already done and complain to the Press Complaints Commission. This writer also did so on the same day –but of course the real irony here is that not only is the PCC famously “toothless” in terms of its regulatory powers –and the Tory-diluted “royal charter” underpinning of the Leveson recommendations on press regulation likely to wring its way through parliament to the point that it will be so watered down as to constitute not so much a ‘set of teeth’ as of dentures– but is also, apparently, currently overseen by…drum roll…one Paul Dacre, unethically recalcitrant and belligerent editor of the Daily Mail! So by complaining about the Mail to the PCC, we are effectively partaking in a rubber-tipped ‘Round Robin’ boomerang bouncing its way back from the very person who professionally facilitated the print solecism itself! So much for democracy and accountability eh?
But we must maintain our “free press” mustn’t we? “Free” for those who own it like property, but not “free” for those who read it only to be fed a narrow pool of right-wing opinion and thereby be offered no full and comprehensive choice of perspective, and distinctly not “free” for those thousands of journalists who are thumb-screwed into churning out right-wing ideological tripe or else face dismissal, and who have no ‘freedom of conscience’ in their profession (hence why the proposal for a ‘Conscience Clause’ in the Media Reform petition of Parliament at the time of the Leveson debates was so vital, obviously fair and reasonable, yet, thereby, so clearly doomed to languishing in the long grass relegated by the vested interests of the Tory government and their oligarchic news baron sponsors).
It is depressing to note that views against state assistance of the poor and incapacitated were every bit as prevalent in pre-welfare state Britain as in post-welfare state Britain: prior to the 1945 Attlee Settlement and the welfare state as we know it today, there had been, since the 1900s, proto-welfare ‘schemes’, such as Lloyd-George’s ‘national insurance’, and, indeed, the ‘dole’ used to be referred to pejoratively as “going on the Lloyd-George”. But such schemes, though hugely progressive for their times, were far less comprehensive and redistributive as those which formed the modern welfare state post-45. It would seem there has always been a certain trait in the British mentality –quite probably an inherited conviction rooted in the Protestant Work Ethic and Calvinist notions of “work” as a “moral” question– which simply cannot countenance pure “need” as a justification for state assistance; that there has to be some element of conditionality, contribution and even, in a sense, punishment to accompany it.
One might also ask just how far away from the encouragement of the public to start targeting actual homes of claimants in order to vent their tabloid-whipped resentments –debatably in a similar way to which German citizens were incited by Nazi propaganda to paint JUDE and stars of David on the windows of Jewish shops and homes– is such virtual hate-inducing rhetoric as this from the prime minister in August 2012:
You walk down the road on your way to work and you see the curtains drawn in their house. You know they could work, but they choose not to.
And precisely how do they know they 'could work'? Are they mind-readers? Many too ill to work suffer from 'invisible' mental illnesses. Yet even the Tories, DWP and tabloids manage to stigmatise the invisible!
Scroungerology; O Beveridge Where Art Thou?
It is hardly a secret that, traditionally, historically and – as demonstrated through the welfare caps and Atos WCAs –rhetorically the Tories have never been particular admirers of the welfare state; many, indeed, have been and still are ‘philosophically’ opposed to it, believing it has done more to perpetuate William Beveridge’s “Five Giant Evils” (Disease, Want, Squalor, Idleness, Ignorance) than it has to alleviate or eradicate them; and certainly ‘Ignorance’, though not in relation to those in poverty, has gone up exponentially over the decades.
The name ‘Beveridge’ is frequently cited with the kind of reverence normally attribute to a Saint by both Tory and Labour spokespersons on welfare (Iain Duncan Smith and Liam Byrne); having written the famous ‘Beveridge Report’ which served as the blueprint for the future welfare state introduced under Clement Attlee’s Labour government (1945-1951), Beveridge is inevitably seen as the benchmark figure in terms of the rubric for defining the ‘desired’ purposes of the welfare state. However, even though his Report was of inestimable value, though more for the consolidation of the Attlee Settlement which it inspired rather than purely in itself, Beveridge himself was not entirely the ‘bleeding-heart’ liberal altruist he is often depicted as: even he, for a time in his ideological development, flirted hypothetically with eugenics theories, and, indeed, was in part influenced by such ideas in his initial vision of a welfare state’s imperative being primarily a form of damage-limitation or ring-fencing of the poorest sections of society for the benefit of wider society, and only secondarily for the alleviation and eventual eradication of poverty itself.
Indeed, there has always been an adumbration of such eugenics preoccupations as “population control” in the mapping of the welfare state, as Richard Overy touches on in his eponymous final chapter of The Morbid Age, nothing that the gloomier prophecies of the Thirties did not, in the end, come about [underscores by this writer:]:
The population did not decline steeply; ideas of eugenic intervention were modified into positive welfare policies…
Nevertheless, even Beveridge’s contributory and conditionality principles were never anywhere near as restrictive and punitive as those of today’s parliamentary consensus; in its time, the Beveridge Report was genuinely progressive, whereas any such claims made by the Tory-led government today, along with such subverted terms as “fair” (when referring to policies which are palpably unfair), “radical” (when referring to policies which are simply extreme and regressive) and “political centre ground” (when referring to what in any other European country would be perceived as unambiguously “centre-right” or “right-wing”) are purely synthetic and deeply disingenuous. In ‘The Decline of the Welfare State’ chapter of their Poverty: The Forgotten Englishmen (1970), Ken Coates and Richard Silburn perfectly depict how governments at times of recession rhetorically couch their draconian fiscal policies and cuts to welfare in the language of social transformation and progress:
Ultimately, the welfare system comes to assume the shape and the values of the markets, to identify itself increasingly with the purposes of the market, and to be seen not as an alternative to market methods of distribution, but as a buttress to them. Such a transformation will of course be hailed by the exponents of the market as ‘rational’, ‘realistic’, and even ‘progressive’. Thus the White Paper on the envisaged reform of the social-security system is claimed, by its authors, to be a more radical document than the Beveridge Report, although in fact it finally sabotages the few remaining traces of the Beveridge principles.
How uncannily similar such rhetorical terms as Overy cites here are to today’s ministerial claims of “putting the greatest burden on the broadest shoulders” and being “fair” and “progressive”, when doing and being the precise opposite.
Some of us of course realise that any failure in the welfare state has chiefly been down to historical undermining through rhetoric and policy by centre-right governments, mostly Tory, but also New Labour, and the well-intentioned but overly ambitious dogma of universalism (i.e. non-means-tested benefit entitlement across the social classes, irrespective, in the main, of actual need). While universalism has over the decades inevitably inflated the welfare budget, anti-welfare or anti-“entitlement” rhetoric has simultaneously eroded public tolerance of the welfare state itself –or rather, attitudes have significantly hardened towards it to the point that the mere word “welfare” is almost a verbal taboo today.
The very fact that the Tories –in particular– have historically criticised, even opposed, the welfare state, and most vehemently, its expansion, shows that if it had been down to the Conservative Party, there would never have been a welfare state at all. This, in turn, demonstrates unambiguously that the Tories would have countenanced the inevitable ramification of a welfare state’s absence: the gradual material, and therefore literal, extinction of the poorest in society, including the physically and mentally ill and disabled. Given this lineage of logic, should we be entirely surprised that today, at a time of global economic meltdown and elective austerity (that is, a fiscal and political choice), that a Tory-led government should be so athletically withdrawing state support for all those in society deemed to be “economically unproductive” or “non-contributory”?
Clearly much Tory ‘thinking’ has its roots in early twentieth-century eugenics theory, which in turn feeds a belief that universal state agencies such as a welfare state and NHS have simply served to perpetuate poverty by extending the lives of the poor without also empowering said lives –a similarly disingenuous, wilful ignorance of the real truth that poverty is perpetuated by capitalism and its dependence for profit on wage restraint which is sustained by the automatic stabiliser of unemployment, a fluid ‘cheap pool of labour’, or a state of affairs which the Tories term as “competitiveness”– the very same argument used by the eugenicists of the Thirties (quoted again from Overy’s book):
In his 1936 Galton lecture, [Julian] Huxley observed that the success of modern medicine and welfare in keeping alive those whom natural selection would have allowed to wither away had potentially catastrophic consequences…
In ‘Points for Propagandists’, written by Bertram Talbot in May 1925 for the Malthusian League … ‘Reckless breeding’ – encouraged, it was claimed, by misguided welfare schemes – had only compounded the problems of poverty, disease and unemployment while abandoning the ‘vital question of the number and quality of the race’. Talbot argued that birth control would, properly practised, protect the genetic future: ‘A few well-born, well-bred children are worth to the nation more than hordes of rickety, under-fed, ill-cared-for little ones’.
The rhetorical Tory philosophy is essentially atomistic (as opposed to holistic), that is to say, it reduces social factors down to their component parts in terms of how it seeks to ‘remedy’ them: so poverty isn’t a societal construct, a ‘shadow-state’ cast by the rapacious greed and self-interest of those who control our society, but is simply down to the “individual” and “individual choice”, even if many ‘individuals’ born into poverty are not even aware of the ‘choices’ they apparently have. Rather than highlighting poverty as a social evil which needs to be relieved and humanely solved, the right-wing attitude is to instead stigmatise the poor as being somehow entirely responsible for their circumstances –“lifestyle choices” and so forth – and to then gradually withdraw state assistance as if by way of punishing them for the ‘sins’ of “worklessness” and “fecklessness”. This in turn leads to governments’ neglect of its collective responsibility to the poor.
Such attitudes of utter intolerance and stigmatisation are unpalatable enough when used against the regular unemployed, most of whom are doing their best to find work and earn a living again often against insurmountable odds only exacerbated by governments such as the present; but when such stigmatisation is then ‘rolled out’ to encompass as well those whose physical or mental illnesses or disabilities preclude their capacities to work, as if their very sicknesses are perceived as suspect, exaggerated or simply fraudulent, the political and cultural climate is sent into an ethical tailspin which is almost certainly destined to end up as one openly and actively hostile towards disability –and such a society can only be seen as attitudinally Spartan; as basically fascist. Fascism, a creed which celebrates human might and vitality, or its most primal ‘animal instincts’, does not tolerate –and vigorously stigmatises– perceived physical or mental ‘weakness’, deeming it as inhibitive of ‘racial’ or ‘genetic’ aggrandisement (interestingly, too, both fascism and Toryism place significant emphasis on physical fitness, sport, athletics, as well as on veneration –and societal augmentation– of militaristic discipline).
That the current Tory-led government is the first to administratively stigmatise the sick and disabled of this nation through the hugely symbolic Atos WCA regimen will ensure its own ethical impeachment for posterity. Here, once again, the breathtaking hypocrisy and duplicity of Prime Minister Cameron comes to the fore: his Paralympic speech in which he spoke of the UK being more tolerant towards disability than ever before when by his government’s own statistics the increasing abomination of “disability hate crime” is at the highest it has been in living memory (such as people being attacked in their wheelchairs, or even tipped out of them by random members of the public) suggests that, at best, this prime minister is the ultimate personification of that contemporary psychical epidemic of “wilful blindness”.
But how can one argue with those who simply refuse to admit to the true nature of what it is they are enacting? Those of us who morally oppose the protocols, purposes and fundamental ‘philosophies’ of the Tory-Atos axis are even denied a candid and lucid dialectical debate with said arbiters of the disabled, because ‘they’, mostly Tory politicians and ministers, insist on infantilising rhetoric which in itself denies the realities of the flagrant social engineering and fiscal contraction of the sick and disabled claimant constituency of society which their policies are enacting on a mass scale. The Tories are never reticent to “call a spade a spade”, as they see it, when thumbing through their memorised ‘scroungerology’ dictionaries to brand the unemployed with such dysphemisms as “idle”, “feckless”, “workshy”, “feral” etc., but when it comes to openly and honestly calling their own demonstrable philosophy by its true name, fiscal eugenics, or fiscal Malthusianism, they bleat out pathetic euphemisms such as “fairness”, “reform”, “fiscal consolidation”, “rebalancing the books” and so on.
The sheer dishonesty of the rhetoric which greases the wheels of the ‘incapacity-capping factory’ that is the Atos WCA operation is, in itself, every inch as unethical as the regimen it justifies. But the torchlight of history will focus on the facts of the time, not on its propaganda; and the facts will show transparently that at a time of economic depression, when faced with two broad choices –to get the rich and the banks to put something back into the society they have enriched themselves from –and subsequently bankrupted in return– by “taking on the biggest burden” on their “broadest shoulders” through higher taxes and closing tax loopholes, and protecting the poorest and most vulnerable in the process –or to simply take the easiest option and vandalise the welfare state –on the back of a flimsy and artificial ‘mandate’ of anti-welfare public ‘opinion’ which is purely the parroted propaganda of government and the tabloid media– thereby jettisoning the poorest in society into chronic destitution, the Tories made the latter, morally unconscionable choice. The Tory solution to poverty: a gradualist agenda of materially wiping out the poor altogether.
“Retrospective Legislation”: Government Rewrites Its Own History
This Tory-led government is doing it all it can to legislatively segregate what it perceives as the social or financial ‘problem groups’ of our time: both the perceived ‘self-inflicted’ poor and dispossessed (i.e. alcoholics, drug addicts and those they would brand ‘voluntarily homeless’ etc.) and as well the involuntarily dispossessed and afflicted (i.e. the hereditarily or genetically sick and disabled, including most with mental illness) –knowing too, full well, that the vast majority of this ‘outcast’ section of the ‘Big’ society would never vote Tory, therefore, represent no electoral threat. Here the Tories are clearly counting on the inhumanity and worst instincts of the rest of the electorate, presuming that their ‘scroungerology’ propaganda campaign of the past three years will render most of the public immune to basic human sympathy for those they will increasingly see sitting in porchways of obsolete shops on their high streets.
The Tories’ legislative programme in dismantling not only the welfare state, but also, crucially, any vestigial public consensus as to its necessity that might have remained prior to their returning to power; this, then, is effectively a regime of legislative eugenics via fiscal controls, which, by draining away the lion’s share of state support for the poorest and most vulnerable in society until only a marsh-like infrastructure, or quagmire, remains, is basically “cleansing” or “gentrifying” society of those who need support and of the state’s –and “taxpayers”’–moral obligation to them.
Furthermore, by such unethical and quite probably illegal measures as drawing up “retrospective legislation” in order to bar any government culpability for compensation to 250,000 claimants unlawfully sanctioned for refusing to take part in the exploitative racket of the ‘Work Programme’ (which, unbelievably, Labour effectively backed by mostly ‘abstaining’ rather than voting against the lightning-quick motion in parliament –only 44 broke ranks and voted against it!), Iain Duncan Smith has now, by implicature, created a new precedent, in ‘law’, that those who are in receipt of state benefits will now be treated differently to those in work when it comes to their basic employment and human rights: this government is breaking the ancient covenant of ‘equality before the law’.
Here both ‘IDS’ and new oxymoronic ‘Justice Minister’ Chris Grayling are indulging their basest instincts for negative social engineering, discrimination, stigmatisation and even propaganda which now involves –apart from new efforts to “redefine poverty” to fit government estimates– the legislative ‘rewriting’ of history itself via “retrospective legislation” –such ‘rogue’ and anti-democratic political behaviours should ring alarm bells: which notorious historical regime rewrote moral law and history and had Ministries of Propaganda and Enlightenment?
This is yet another step down the slippery slope towards zero tolerance of the poor and unemployed, and towards a new kind of eugenics-influenced ‘political sociology’: with every new move made by government, the implication seems to be, increasingly, that the poor, unemployed, sick and disabled are effectively an economic sub-species undeserving either of public sympathy or state support, and about to further be denied their right for legal representation via the new savage cuts in both Legal Aid advice with regards (of course!) to benefits issues, and equally absurd cuts to the last stop of support, the Citizens Advice Bureaux (again, the implication here is that the poor and disabled are no longer considered proper ‘citizens’ therefore do not ‘deserve’ full access to a CAB). If anyone reading this thinks it is mere hyperbole, then it is perhaps necessary to quote from a more liberal, ‘social democrat’ voice (rather than this writer’s socialist one) of the mainstream media, Polly Toynbee in The Guardian of 28 March 2013, at the brink of the Easter Monday ‘bonfire of the benefits’ [all underscores by this writer]:
On BBC news, Iain Duncan Smith, confronted with irrefutable cases of hardship, said: "It's about trying to get as many people as possible out of the welfare trap and into lives they can control themselves." As the economist JK Galbraith observed: "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy: that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."
So far, public opinion seems alarmingly content with these cuts – but before we despair of human kindness, many can plead ignorance. The government relies on destitution staying silent and unseen, isolated in families with no collective voice. …Readers of the Mirror have been briefed this week, and The Independent covered the bedroom tax on its front page. But look back through this week's Times, Telegraph, Mail and Sun to see how their readers are told nothing.
Times readers learned at length of Tanni Grey-Thompson's ordeal of hauling herself up 12 floors when her lift broke down, but only a very short story on her admirable campaign against cuts leaving disabled people £4,600 poorer. …Here's an interesting brief story in the Telegraph: a report that young children moving home three or more times suffer serious behaviour problems. Unfortunately, the Telegraph made no mention of the many families about to be uprooted and sent far from relatives, jobs and schools, into temporary accommodation and B&Bs, then moved on each time their rents rise. With virtually no takers for Cameron's parenting class vouchers, it's the government that needs lessons in child development.
No amount of IDS newspeak can turn the bedroom tax into a "spare bedroom subsidy". Frank Field calls for social landlords to knock down walls or brick up rooms so people can keep their homes: it's all a fraud, since IDS knows that 660,000 tenants with a spare room can never be found smaller properties, they will pay the extra or fall into debt and arrears until they are evicted. From Monday, most of the poorest get a new bill of an average £138 for council tax. Landlords expect mayhem when tenants are paid rent directly every month: pilots show many fall into debt.
And here, more specific to this polemic and anthology [underscores by this writer]:
Now add in these: disability living allowance starts converting into personal independence payment with a target to remove 500,000 people in new Atos medical tests. The Guardian has revealed how jobcentre staff are under orders to find any sanction to knock people off benefits. [This refers to the revelation of jobcentre ‘scorecards’ used towards this purpose: this writer]. New obstacles are strewn in their path: people must apply for their benefits online from computers they don't possess; many of these claimants are semi-literate. When in dire straits, there will be no more crisis loans, only a card for buying food, with not a penny for bus fares. Trussell Trust food banks expect a great surge of the hungry, so they ask everyone to donate the price of an Easter egg.
Here is the final wicked twist: legal aid has been removed for advice on benefits, housing, divorce, debt, education and employment. On Monday the budget of Citizens Advice for such cases falls from £22m to £3m. The few emergency cases still covered – families facing instant eviction – can only use a phone service, not face-to-face legal help. Law centres will close. There will be no help on school exclusions, landlord or employer harassment, or failure to pay wages.
Every new benefit system starts out with a high error rate: everyone knows the complex universal credit will leave millions with incorrect or no payments – and now, nowhere to go for help. Courts and tribunals expect chaos as people try to make their own cases without any help. Try to imagine the plight of people in debt because of the non-arrival of payments, with no credit on their phones to call and inquire, no crisis loan to buy phone credit, no internet access – and now no advice service either.
I refuse to believe most people would not be shocked if they knew, if they saw and if they understood. Even some of the 30% who always vote Tory might be appalled if they weren't so well deceived by their ministers, MPs and newspapers, who lie knowingly and deliberately. People should know that historians will record the earthquake of social destruction that happened in their name, while they read of nothing but "scroungers" and the "soaring benefit bill".
Fit To Work: Poets Against Atos: A Timely Humanitarian Verse Intervention
For all these reasons, it is more than timely that fellow poet Mark Burnhope –one of the 130 contributors to The Robin Hood Book– has taken on the direly needed task of producing a poetry campaign specifically targeting the Atos WCA regime in order to draw to wider public attention the incalculable suffering it continues to cause among the most physically and mentally vulnerable members of our society. It is, further, a true honour to be invited to contribute this polemic by way of an Introduction to this initiative, as well as a serendipity, since the ‘Atos issue’ is something this writer is passionately active in both documenting and opposing via The Recusant and the two Caparison anthologies he has edited: Mark Burnhope’s coordinating of this particular project has meant that this writer has been able to take more of a backseat this time round but at the same time still be involved. This also means that he is now able to concentrate his energies almost entirely on the design of what will be the forthcoming ebook publication, Fit To Work: Poets Against Atos, which will be produced under the Caparison imprint, and so will effectively serve as the third of its anti-cuts anthologies.
This ebook collection of poetry and polemic composed in direct moral opposition to the Tory-Atos axis promises to be a timely and significant publication. Already Mark Burnhope and his fellow editors, Sophie Mayer and Daniel Sluman –the former two also part of the editorial triad behind the campaigning ebook Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot (PEN, 2012)– have produced a robustly satirical website to herald their ongoing project, Fit To Work: Poets Against Atos at http://ftwpoetsagainstatos.wordpress.com/. The site’s design is particularly striking, being a kind of corporate pastiche of the impersonal ‘look’ of the company’s own website –it was publicly launched on 1st April 2013 to coincide with the national rolling-out of the Government’s full-scale asset-stripping of the welfare state and social housing sector via the welfare caps, “bedroom tax”, the introduction of Universal Credit; and, of course, the upcoming ‘PIP’ (‘Personal Independence Payment’) which will replace DLA (Disability Living Allowance) in a bid to knock as many sick and disabled claimants off their benefits as possible –and to be administered, yes, by medically discredited outsource-outfit Atos, and in spite –and thereby in contempt– of the thousands of vulnerable lives turned upside down, humiliated, impoverished, or even, ultimately, bureaucratically ‘terminated’ by a litany of premeditatedly target-rigged, ‘descriptor’-capped and therefore incorrect ‘fit for work’ decisions made by said company.
Given the very direct and catastrophic toll the Atos WCAs are taking on the lives of the sick and disabled of our country, it is undoubtedly one of the most urgent issues of this time and one needing the utmost combating at every dialectical and creative level: this is why Fit to Work: Poets Against Atos is, in terms of its area of focus, may prove to be one of the most imperative and controversial poetic-polemical interventions of this period. But it is indeed an imperative, vital intervention, since what we are standing up against is not only the continuing atomisation of the basic material wellbeing and even human rights of the mentally and physically ill of this nation; but also the potentially lethal rhetoric of a truly intransigent, ruthless and, seemingly, morally unaccountable Tory-led government which is cravenly using the smokescreen of “austerity” and “deficit reduction” to ethically justify the industrial-scale state-abandonment and pauperisation of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.
In the future, the ‘Atos experiment’ will, in this writer’s view, inevitably be perceived for what it is in retrospect: the ethically darkest moment in modern British political history. If there is any justice, in the fullness of time, once all the facts are known, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Messrs Cameron, Osborne, Duncan Smith, Grayling, Shapps and Mrs Miller may well find themselves having to account for their wholesale betrayal and fiscal persecution of the most defenceless members of our society to the European Court of Human Rights –that’s if, of course, they don’t go their own way after 2015 and “repatriate” said “powers”, burying them altogether.
One day we will have to explain to our children and grandchildren that “it happened here”, and when they ask what we did about it, many will no doubt say “we weren’t aware of what was going on”, when what they will really mean is, “we just pretended to ourselves it wasn’t happening”.
[Parts of this polemic first appeared at Fit To Work: Poets Against Atos © 2013]
Alan Morrison © April 2013
A.N. Wilson - rhetoric worthy of that of biologist and eugenicist