What’s Wrong With Spending Your Benefits On Prosecco?
Same Difference missed this last week, but you know what they say about old being gold…
The first benefits “fauxtrage” of 2017 is upon us, barely a week in. Harrumpher-in-chief Phillip Schofield decided that the best use of his time was to shake his head patronisingly at a woman who had the gall to buy two bottles of prosecco on her “Christmas bonus” – a pittance added to her benefits payments. This leaves the tabloids free to engage in their ceremonial monstering of someone who bought a tenner’s worth of fizzy wine while not being currently retained by an employer.
Moaning about the fecklessness of the poor is a national sport that predates the introduction of the chip shop – the patronage of which (“with my tax money!”) is likewise cause for public tut-tutting. “Would it not be better,” asked George Orwell in 1937, “if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even … saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing.”
“Unemployment,” he continues, “is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated.” The disagreement on this issue is not on the misery of poverty and unemployment, but on the idea that alleviating that misery is a good thing. If the unemployed do not earn their money through hard labour, then they should be expected to earn through suffering.
Anything can be used as an example of the unemployed worker’s fecklessness. Fridges and microwaves can be used to suggest the poor aren’t “really” poor. The screed against the “massive flatscreen TV” is positively ubiquitous, which is one of those things that really demonstrates the kind of alienation from the realities of the consumer electronics market you only get among the middle class. I don’t even know where to go to buy a cathode ray tube TV these days, but I do know you can get a 43” flatscreen for under £250 at Tesco.
Back in 1844, Marx pointed out that “every luxury of the worker seems to be reprehensible, and everything that goes beyond the most abstract need seems a luxury”. We pretend to ourselves that our indignation at the poor buying tobacco or alcohol is rooted in our compassion, the same as Orwell’s contemporaries who insisted that they would be better off eating brown bread and raw carrots. But in reality it is a vicious reaction against the poor’s presumptuous insistence on experiencing life as if they were as fully human as the rest of us.
Some would say here that I have missed the most important thing. The woman Schofield excoriated on daytime TV was using “taxpayer’s money” for her luxuries. The poor, one might argue, should be as frugal as possible because, as Margaret Thatcher once said: “Sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.”
Such analysis is as ubiquitous as it is wholly incorrect. We are not still living in the time of Joseph and his seven fat and seven lean years, where taxes were gathered in the form of bushels of grain and bolts of linen. That is simply not how an economy like ours in the 21st century works. When government restricts the flow of money through the economy this causes us material harm by stifling economic consumption and thus robbing us all of income.
Punitive benefits systems designed to force people to endlessly hunt for work that does not exist give the whip hand to employers. It pits those in work against the competition of those doing the rounds, photocopied CVs in hand, between every employer in town. The sub-inflation pay rises, wage theft and abusive conditions that plague many of the low-waged precariat – many of whom need to access the benefits system themselves to afford heat and shelter – must be endured without complaint or resistance because to do so would mark you out as a troublemaker who should be replaced from the swollen pool of reserve labour.
Workfare can see job vacancies that would otherwise have paid at least minimum wage being occupied by someone on benefits. The moral hazard in such situations is not that unemployed people may become accustomed to the luxury of being able to buy two bottles of prosecco a year, but that employers can use the constant threat of a miserable life on unemployment to keep wages and conditions nailed down to the floor.
It is hard not to suspect that this is intentional. The Tories have never been a party particularly in favour of paying wages to people. The danger to them of a benefits system that enables people to live with some semblance of humanity is that it provides a lower bound to how much they can extract from their workforce. A worker who can choose the dole is a worker with the power to say “no” to his boss, and such a sin cannot be tolerated.
Such miserliness creates a race to the bottom, a country where the standards of what constitutes a decent, human life are subject to constant erosion. Orwell, again, pointed out that it is the very performance of poverty that we expect from our underclass. “Our unemployment allowances, miserable though they are, are framed to suit a population with very high standards and not much notion of economy. If the unemployed learned to be better managers they would be visibly better off, and I fancy it would not be long before the dole was docked correspondingly.”
In other words, even if they hung old sacks at their window in lieu of curtains and ate cold beans by the light of recycled candles, if by this process they managed to save any money for a birthday present or a trip to the theatre this in itself would be considered frivolous waste. Such frugality would remain virtuous only if it demonstrated how much less they could get in benefits, how much more debasement a human body could tolerate before it gave up the ghost completely.
We are robbed as a society not by someone spending “taxpayer’s money” on fizzy wine at Christmas, but by the spirit of Ebeneezer Scrooge, begrudging every ha’penny that might reduce the immiseration of the poor and, in so doing, sucking sales out of our economy and bargaining down our wages. Our posturing about the feckless poor may well make us feel virtuous, but that is all it is good for.