In the week of the HSBC scandal, how can David Cameron, in good conscience, introduce forced labour for the unemployed? asks Andrew Smart
THIS WEEK AMID the ever widening and sickening HSBC scandal, Prime Minister David Cameron had the temerity to stand in front of wall plastered with the phrase “A Britain That Rewards Work!” and declare that young people on welfare would have to do forced labour to continue receiving benefits.
Cameron’s peers among the rent-seeking rich on the other hand are rewarded with impunity for their clever tax evasion schemes they worked out with their Swiss bankers. Yes, that is virtuous and important work for the country and is rewarded with secret accounts with names like “3326 CR” – one of Valentino’s secret tax-free HSBC accounts worth as much as 100 million dollars.
HSBC was also working really hard on helping terrorists and drug lords evade taxes and launder money. But never mind that. There are young poor people getting subsistence level income who are able to eat! This is what keeps Cameron up at night, a 19-year-old kid on the dole! The horror. This, according to Cameron, is the real moral outrage. We have to make the young poor understand that “welfare is not a one-way street”. Apparently however, tax evasion and money laundering among the super rich are very lucrative one-way streets for HSBC, bankers and heiresses.
This really is a Britain that rewards work! All the added value to the government of helping the rich hide their ill-gotten gains, if not necessarily monetary, contributes to the health of the upper class, which remember is the reason any of us are allowed to survive at all. Then something vaguely Thatcheresque about rising tides, overflowing cups and trickling down of wealth. Meanwhile, those insolent poor people should be punished with hard toil for their original sin of not being born heirs to criminal fortunes.
Cameron continued, “But if they have drifted into a life of inactivity, then it’s pretty clear what these young people need. They need work experience. They need the order and discipline of turning up for work each day.” Finally a courageous politician willing to stand up to the corrupt and unemployed rich! Oh that’s right, he isn’t talking about them. He is talking about young people struggling to find their way in this increasingly brutal world, those are the people who need to be punished. The people making the world brutal, the ones with the Swiss bank accounts are heroes!
The perverse desire to punish poor people with forced labor is nothing new. Idleness was referred to as a “loathsome monster” in 16th century England, but not for rich people of course. No they were allowed to cultivate leisure by collecting rent from the rest of society. Idleness is only a loathsome monster for poor people. Luther, whose influence still apparently holds sway over Cameron, thought that forced labor is the way to keep young poor people on the “path of righteous living” so that they do not “heedlessly wander about”.
In 1580 an Oxfordshire gentleman called Robert Hitchcock proposed forming a fleet of four hundred herring boats to employ ten thousand of the young poor. Perhaps the young poor would find that more interesting than the forced “daily community work” that Cameron proposes. Or perhaps more pleasing to the conservatives would be the banned but continued Indian practice of forced labor or debt bondage for the poorest people. The victims of this cruel practice are called Dalits and occupy the lowest social status. They are eternally in debt by virtue of their caste and must perform hours of backbreaking labor daily to repay this debt.
The vast majority of forced labour programs for welfare recipients in West have been shown to be ineffectual. It only complicates the already difficult lives of the poor and does not lead to the acquisition of skills that lend themselves to being better exploited by the business class.
Despite the demonstrably false pretenses under which these programs are introduced, conservative governments continue to insist on forcing young people to work. The reason is not economic but moral. Underlying the punitive cultural attitude toward poverty is some pervasive anxiety among the upper class that people without resources might be allowed to survive without being exploited. The victims of the current economic system are at fault according to this model.
Andrew Smart is a neuroscience researcher and author of Auto-Pilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing (OR Books)