Friday, November 12, 2010

In praise of dependency

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
One of the promised benefits of coalition was that it would moderate the more extreme tendencies of a governing party. Run that by me again. Nope … can't really see it myself, this seems a pretty radical Conservative government to me.

The latest wheeze is the welfare reforms being proposed. I haven't read them in detail, but the language is clear enough; penalties for refusing a job, compulsory community work, and the idea of unemployment as a lifestyle choice. Underpinning it all is the dreadful notion of dependency culture. I hate this concept. I can find little in the way of empirical grounding and even less of empathy and understanding. In many ways, and I intend to cover this in a subsequent post, it is anti-liberal and even authoritarian in its import. It brings no great insights, it is simply a regurgitation of the worst prejudices of the Philosophic Radicals of the early 19th Century. Its attraction lies in it being a neat way of making punitive policies sound compassionate - 'tough love' in the revolting parlance of the Clinton era. Government as Victorian father. Spare the rod and spoil the child.

I want to make a stand for dependency. What is wrong with it? Why should some people not be dependent? After all, we are all dependent at some time or other in our lives. When we are children, ill or old are obvious examples of times when we cannot function without support. And though we prize our independence, it is a sign of a civilised society that those who fall dependent at any one time are cared for in whatever way they can be. Even more, like it or not, we cannot escape the ties of emotional dependence. Actually, we treasure them and those that don't have them long for them. We are all dependent. Love is not tough.

Dependency is not a stigma, it is an inescapable part of human life. We need dignity in dependence. In political discourse, however, it is transformed into something to be sneered at. Yet this is not really what they are talking about. They really mean poverty. Then that isn't quite as cosy sounding, not nearly as capable as carrying acceptable contempt. Dependency implies individual failings; poverty is produced by structural injustice. How convenient a formula it is then to say that we need to reform individuals and not the world they live in, to talk about the redemptive power of work, of sin and fairness, rather than equity, exploitation and the desperate, inter-generational, self-perpetuating, destructive experience of grinding poverty.

As for employment being universally liberating, I have never really seen how an individual can be liberated by being removed from unemployed poverty to working poverty. What freedom is there in the fundamentally servile relationship of employment, of lousy wages, bullying bosses and the constant fear of the sack? Is this freedom? Is it a free market where of the two sides to a potential contract, one is threatened with the withdrawal of all means of support if they do not sign on the dotted line? Benefit penalties are a form of public coercion to sign a private contract.

I don't propose to enter the debate about how to alleviate poverty or the current proposals, instead I am pleading for us to use language clearly and to describe the ills of our day as they actually are, not as politicians would wish them to be. After all, if we name the disease correctly, we might have a chance of treating it.


Will said...

"Government as Victorian father."

Roger said...

Chris Dillow made a similar point recently:

As he points if workshyness was a genuine lifestyle choice (as it would be if we had a genuine Minimum Guaranteed Income) then we'd all be so much better off in that those of us who do want jobs will have much less competition.

And by the normal law of supply and demand wages would rise as there'd be millions fewer competing for work.

All utterly utopian of course....

Paulie said...

Take any section of society and there are people who are - in one way or another - square pegs in the employment market of round holes. There are millions like that in this country. I'm one - except I have the experience and outlook to manage in self employment.

This is just a demonisation of the people who haven't savings or inherited wealth who find themselves in this position.

By the way, your 'captcha' word verification is currently 'slypooes' which is, you will agree, quite funny?

Paulie said...

That word 'outlook' in my last comment isn't right. I meant 'habits'.

Paul Sagar said...

I'm entirely in agreement regarding your point about work being, frankly, shit for a lot of people. Indeed I blogged on this very matter yesterday:

However, I think you can take your dependency arguments further. For in a very real sense, being dependent upon (say) the state for (say) disability allowance can actually *create* independence in other ways. For example, by freeing a person from being dependent upon - and at the mercy of - the petty whims of others whom they may find themselves in a position of undesirable dependence upon.

Stuart White explored this point recently:

And I endorse it too:

George S said...

The story is that some people freeload on hard-working others and that those people need to be driven back to work. It's a 'fixed' story in that the terms it uses are loaded. That is what the term 'dependency culture' is about. The claim is to fairness: you are doing all this and others are doing nothing and getting more: that's not fair. Culture? There's loads of them, see, conspiring and having a great time at your expense.

The problem is that the idea of fairness is located in one area only - at the bottom. Useful and enlightening to move the term up the financial scale and see what happens.

Good too to run the John Donne sermon upfront as it shows another way of looking at human culture. An interdependency culture is something to be be valued.

It can, of course, be demoralising not to have work, even poorly paid work. Feeling useless is hard. But being tough on those who don't have it - and many more people are not going to have in the next few years - is tough talk with inhumane consequences.

Overtired and emotional said...

Well, yes, let's call things by their proper names, so let's decide why an appreciable portion of the population has been out of work for almost ten years, years in which there have been ample employment opportunities.

We can be sure that no one explanation answers all cases. For some, dependency will be a lifestyle choice. Some will have been conditioned into dependency by the available resources of a welfare state. Some will have been conditioned into dependency by generations of poverty.

Irrespective of what proportion falls into which category, is it acceptable that part of the population which is physically capable of supporting itself, is condemned to a lifetime's dependency because we think dependency is a good thing, or, at least, not a bad thing?

I suspect, and this is no more than saloon bar evidence, that most people would find the Plump's forthcoming book,"In praise of dependency" the very height of folly.

It strikes me that the sentiments expressed in this post infantilise those at the bottom of the heap by, in effect, asserting that they will never climb out from under. You may object that you said no such thing, indeed you did not, but the effect of acquiescing in dependency must surely ossify that stratum of society.

Menial work may not be wonderful, but it is not inevitable. You sterotype the bullying boss; are all bosses bullies? The only people I have known to receive death threats in the course of their work are a senior manager and his (houswife) wife threatened by, or purportedly by, employees.

There are moral arguments to be had, but, ultimately, if dependency is funded by taxation, then state funded dependency is, in a democratic, society a popular decision.

Will said...

Right to be lazy

Can i have a jerb as a royal marriage partner? Will fuck for food.

Anton Deque said...

This is a large topic. I wonder if it is also one in which emotion rather than fact holds complete sway? Yet, why should not injustice be emotional?

To approach this from a different angle I wonder also whether the built infrastructure of the post War period has had an important part to play? Interesting in the context of discussions of 'dependancy' has been a parallel one on 'failed estates'. Failing in what way?

If I have this correctly, the one class which has had to bare the greatest degree of economic disruption and change from what have been historically low starting positions have been the unskilled working class. Slipped in (and seemingly under) most people's noses has been the somewhat more pernicious idea that in order to re-create social mobility to take 'advantage' new work opportunities, the Lib-Con Coalition is suggesting ending the right of council housed people to a 'tenancy for life'.

Can it be always be lightly dismissed as a return to old out-dated class based politics to point out that the people bringing these plans to bear are privately educated, independently wealthy, elites?

One has the feeling that there is a plan here but working to whose ultimate benefit? The B.N.P.s?

Roger said...

The people this is supposed to benefit are employers.

Increase the supply of unskilled and semi-skilled labour and its price will drop and profits rise accordingly.

Up until 2008 this end was achieved by immigration - now that most of the Poles have gone home again the answer is to force the native working class to take jobs at minimum wage or less again.

And as regards tenancy for life the real purpose is to complete the privatisation of social housing which even if it is run by a housing association will become increasingly indistinguishable from the private rented sector (i.e. it will provide the minimum quality of
accommodation for the maximum price that can be extracted from the tenant).

It really is as simple as that...