Most probably people have heard of the bizarre investigative journalism by The Mail on Sunday in an article which appeared on Easter Sunday (of all days in the year). The Mail on Sunday sent in a reporter, a wannabe Jimmy Olsen, to investigate provision of food by food-banks in Britain and that reporter literally took food out of the mouths of the hungry in order to prove some point. This provoked a backlash on social media that demonstrated that the neoliberal agenda seems to not have sunk too deeply in the hearts and minds of the British people. That is a relief and quite honestly more than I expected, given the constant barrage in the newspapers and on the news on telly that has never questioned the logic (forget the morality) of welfare caps and cuts to welfare benefits.
ht: my sister Mia for comments and editing on this piece
However, the issue goes far deeper than the attempted neoliberalisation of the provision of charity in the context of the capitalist economic system in a Britain living under austerity; it actually raises issues of wages and incomes ensuring social subsistence in the context of capitalism and hence the reproduction of the working class.
The issue impinges upon the basic rights of human beings to be ensured their subsistence irrespective of the ability to work; this relates both to:
- Being unable to find work as there are no jobs due to laws of motion of the capitalist economic system
- Being unable to work due to disabilities, illness, or having caring responsibilities and the capitalist economy’s unwillingness to create social policies guaranteeing full accessibility for people with disabilities that can work and the full socialisation of care for children, the disabled, the sick and the elderly which would free women from caring responsibilities.
This then raises the question what are the moral precepts underlying our society in terms of guarantees to all members of the rights to a basic subsistence ensuring housing, food, heating, clothing, clean water and electricity?
The Attempt to Neoliberalise Charity Provision
In many senses, the article is rather chilling in terms of what was attempted. It is also way over the top; charity is private and individual by nature. One would think that would be sufficient to fulfil Tory fantasies of assistance for the poor and unemployed no longer provided by the social welfare state, but guess again.
An “investigative reporter” (and that is using the term very generously) goes to the Citizens’ Advice Bureau (the go-to place when you need assistance to deal with an unfriendly and complex class society) and tells them that he is having trouble making ends meet due to rising fuel bills (this is a very common problem due to rising prices of energy, fuel and electricity). The Citizens Advice Bureau contacts the Trussell Trust who runs many food-banks in this country (along with community groups, other church groups and horribly enough the Red Cross who have been distributing food for the first time since World War II) and issue the “reporter” a voucher coupon).
As an aside, and, to add insult to injury, these vouchers to food-banks, appallingly, are also given by government Jobs Centres when clients come in and tell them that they have insufficient funds to purchase food. The provision of voucher coupons by the Job Centres is part of government policy … even worse, it is government policy to send the hungry and unemployed to food-banks instead of providing sufficient benefits income to those that come in for assistance which is also, disgustingly, government policy.
The Citizen’s Advice Bureau then sent our intrepid reporter to the food-bank where he tells the same story. Correctly, the food-bank provides food and basic goods to this investigative reporter. They did not search his house, ask him for proof of insufficient economic means, demand evidence of any sort; they are a charity and their role is to provide food when people need it. Their job is not to shame people or investigate people or means-test people – their role is to step in to ensure that those that say they have insufficient income to buy food are covered.
That brings us to the first issue: due to government cutbacks in benefits, people cannot limit their use of food-banks to a disastrous situation; which was their original and sole purpose. Sometimes even with the best planning people run out of money; there are unexpected expenses (e.g., dentists, new school uniforms, higher utility bills than usual), which can blow a budget especially in the absence of credit cards and unwillingness to take out a usurious loan (which is impossible to get if you are unemployed anyhow). Food-banks are supposed to be a last-gasp resort for people. As the Trussell Trust (and various clergy have pointed out), the government’s attacks on the social welfare state are literally forcing people to rely on food-banks on a regular basis rather than in desperate circumstances!
For his Easter message, David Cameron enjoyed talking about what a Christian nation Britain is; ironically, he clearly does not want to hear members of the Clergy that came to talk to him about poverty caused by government policy as his staff called the police! Let’s give Cameron a round of applause, as his party seems to be the only one in Parliament that called the police on the Clergy. While extolling the principles of Christianity on the abstract level or when they are useful for anti-immigrant bashing, in actual practice concrete Christianity and David Cameron seem to be at odds.
In many senses, this appalling policy is reminiscent of the “Thousand Points of Light” nonsense promulgated by George HW Bush (the father, not the son) in his inaugural address where voluntarism and charity donations were supposed to replace a modern social welfare state. Thanks again to the US for exporting yet another failed and reactionary policy overseas to justify the destruction of a real social welfare state (as opposed to the rather pallid and anaemic imitation in the US)! In fact, I would argue that this nonsensical speech by GHW Bush was the beginning of the identification of the social welfare state with charity, while these two things are separate and distinct and should never be conflated.
The Response to the Maul on Sunday article
The response to the article by The Mail on Sunday was swift and angry. It spread all over social media and this was chronicled by The Guardian.
According to the Trussell Trust:
Thousands of people took to social media to express their support for The Trussell Trust and its foodbanks. Well-known names like the author Mark Haddon, musician Billy Bragg, financial journalist Paul Lewis and comedian Jon Ronson donated to the Trussell Trust Easter appeal to show their support and encouraged others to do the same. Almost 5,000 people have donated to the Help Crack UK Hunger Justgiving page since the article was published, and donations to the appeal page rose from £2,000 before Sunday to over £60,000 to date.
Today The Trussell Trust says that since Sunday, donations to Help Crack UK Hunger, combined with donations to Trussell Trust’s general funds, have reached an incredible £97,673.57p. A large proportion of this amount can be attributed to reactions to the Mail on Sunday article and additional coverage.”
Trussell Trust Chief Executive David McAuley says:
“We have been moved, humbled and overwhelmed by the incredible generosity of the British public following the Mail on Sunday’s article. It’s been amazing to see thousands of people react in such a positive way, wanting to help people in crisis. I would like to thank everyone who got behind this campaign, not just for their donations, but also for the positive words of encouragement. It means a lot, and will make a big difference to lots of people who are struggling in the UK.”
The Trussell Trust team has been blown away by the generosity and support of so many people. All the funds raised will help The Trussell Trust to do more to help stop people going hungry in the UK (http://www.trusselltrust.org/latest-news#HCUKH).
As an understatement, I was extremely relieved that so many British people were so appalled by The Mail on Sunday piece and the attempted neoliberalisation of charity.
But, and this brings me to the main issue, I have been far more concerned about the acceptance of the argument that it is charity that needs to provide for those whose wages (whether wages or benefits; as there are working poor people in Britain that get help along with those that are unemployed) or whose benefits are now insufficient due to government economic policies.
The essential problem is two-fold:
- To address the economic crisis, the government suppressed wages to keep profits up under the ideological position/obfuscation that higher profits would ensure investment and get the economy growing again; this is known as Say’s Law for those that know mainstream economic theory (which maintains that all economic growth derives from income saved from profits which is then invested leading to economic growth). This specifically was the case for wages of public employees whose increases were frozen at 1% (way below the rate of inflation measured by the Consumer Price Index which they substituted for the Retail Price Index which covered housing increases), state and public worker pensions were re-pegged to the Consumer Price Index to decrease future increases;
- The government then proceeded to cut income for the working class by cutting benefits. The social welfare system in Britain is different from that of the US. It does not only cover the unemployed and poor. There are elements that are cross-class, like child tax credits, child-care benefits, winter heating allowance, disability living allowance and incapacity benefit (that independent worker’s personal contributions), and, of course, the NHS which is available to all. It has historically also been used to prop up incomes of those earning insufficient income to cover general living expenses thus freeing capitalists from having to pay higher wages (e.g., child-care benefit, child benefits, housing benefits, etc).
What is really going on?
What we are seeing is a contradiction of the capitalist economic system manifesting itself. On the one hand, we have the introduction of austerity, the manner in which neoliberalism is attempting to deal with an economic crisis, which is lowering wages to increase profits and profitability. On the other hand, there is the need in the capitalist economic system to ensure the reproduction of working class as these workers are needed to actually work and to produce goods and services over and above the value of their wages to ensure the creation of surplus value (value of the surplus product over and above reproduction of the economy at the same level) which forms the basis of interest, profits and rents.
Moreover, wages need to be of a sufficient level for workers to actually purchase the goods and services in order for realisation of profits to occur; in the absence of sale at a price over cost of production, there are no profits. So, undermining the social subsistence level (and remember this is throughout the advanced capitalist world) could actually interfere with realisation of surplus value in the form of profits.
That is why there is so much babble about export-led growth; they are actually hoping to ensure the sale of goods and services overseas whilst undermining social subsistence levels. However, what happens when all countries in the advanced capitalist world are all lowering wages to prop up profits? That means that sale of goods is not increasing sufficiently to keep the wheels of the system greased. Guess what, that also means that investment by capitalists to increase output (and employment) is not happening.
That is why economic growth in the advanced capitalist world has not been spectacular. It is also why so much attention is being paid to China to increase wages and create a social welfare state so that the Chinese working class will save less and spend more.
There is an inherent contradiction between the needs of labour (to subsist and reproduce; i.e., to cover housing, food, clothing, heating, water and to have families) and the needs of capital (to have continuous growth and rising profits and profitability) in capitalism.
What is happening in this period (and this is the culmination of economic policy since the 1970s) is that the perceived needs of capital are increasingly in conflict with the needs of labour. As a result, not only is the recognised social subsistence level being eroded to prop up profits; the fact that the system (in the absence of a public or state sector to increase employment) cannot create full employment of labour is becoming more and more evident.
Essentially, under capitalism, the number of workers that are employed depends on the available technology that can be used to produce goods and services; and what is produced depends on expected profitability of these goods and services which depends upon the expected demand for these goods to be produced.
In capitalism, what is produced does not depend upon human need (it depends upon profitability and expected profitability); the manner in which these things (goods and services) are produced (i.e., technical choice: the use of labour, land and capital of varying types) does not depend upon ensuring jobs for all, but rather potential profitability.
Moreover, the needs of capital do not take into account the impact of economic growth on the planet itself; a planet that we all need to sustain life and not the needs of capital.
We need to understand that capitalism needs to be eliminated; it is sucking literally sucking the lifeblood out of the majority of people on the planet and the planet itself!
We deserve a world that does require the existence of food-banks, where everyone has what they need to lead a fulfilling life; this should not be a privilege granted solely to the members of the ruling class.
This means that we need to talk about what are our social responsibilities to each other as human beings. Yes, we can reform capitalism certainly; but those reforms will not change the basic nature of the system that depends upon wealth and income inequality and exploitation of the majority to fulfil the needs of the economic system of continual growth and profitability.
We also need to discuss how we can ensure that the basic needs of all human beings are covered and that we do not destroy the planet to ensure these things. We need to address how more than basic needs for humans to develop and create and advance themselves can be met. In order to do this, we need to understand that as human beings we have the right to what we need to lead fulfilling lives, irrespective of our ability to work. We also do not have the right to undermine others’ rights to the same fulfilling lives. To put it simply:
“From each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs.”
Hoping everyone had a wonderful May Day! Please share photos (if you have them) of events where you live!
¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!