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.