02 January 2012

Politics of Envy

One day, sitting at home, you get a phone call. It's from your friend. Her flatmate has moved out and left a whole fridge-full of delicious food. She's atrocious in the kitchen, but she knows you and your three flatmates are very good, and makes a suggestion: The four of you come round, make something amazing out of her food, she'll throw in a couple of bottles of wine and you'll all eat it together. It's a lovely idea, you all go round together, but as soon as you get to her flat, you need the toilet. And the thing is, though you're a pretty good cook yourself, all your flatmates are even better, and by the time you've finished your business, washed your hands and come out, they're all busy making dinner.

So you ask "Is there anything I can help with?" No, it turns out. They're all fine, just sit down. So you sit, you chat to the hostess, but you feel awkward. So you ask again, again nothing. A few minutes later, you start asking them individually, can you chop that, is there anything you can help with, why don't you take over that so he can have a turn sitting down, but to be honest, you feel like you're getting in the way more than anything. Soon, dinner's ready, it smells delicious, and you're just about to tuck in when your flatmate goes "wait!". He's staring you right in the eye. "Wait a second. I don't see why you should get any. You've not lifted a finger to help. What makes you think you deserve a share of the meal we've spent the past hour and a half slaving away on?" You go home, hungry.

Now, obviously you're partly to blame for having moved in with Ed Miliband. Tories and the Labourites that ape them are very concerned about the long-term unemployed. Your housemate was obviously very concerned about "idleness" and "something for nothing culture", and is damned if anyone's going to get something if there's nothing he actually wants from them in return. These people get very upset at the idea of someone never having a job. It doesn't seem to bother them that if 2.5 million people are unemployed and there are only half a million vacancies, then however you arrange it, at best there would still be two million people unemployed.

I can sort of see the objections to taxpayers' money going on benefits. But something for nothing, long-term joblessness, none of these cost us any extra money. Whether the two million leftover unemployed are idle because they're between jobs or have never had one because they're too shy, whether they would desperately take any job offered or just plain can't be fucked with it, it doesn't cost the taxpayer an extra penny either way, because there will be the same bloody shortfall in jobs. Two million jobseeker's claimants going idle is two million jobseeker's claimants going idle, and "choosing" a lifetime of it doesn't cause any net increase in idleness. I'm not saying it's not right to get people off benefits, that getting a job isn't a solution. I'm just saying that without full employment it's blatantly only going to work for a fraction of the people you yell it at.

So why do we care? Why do we get so fucking angry about people getting bare subsistence wages for nothing, when as a society there's nothing we want them to do for us anyway? Capitalist society's wife spends weeks and weeks asking "what do you want for your birthday?", and then after spending all that time saying "oh, nothing at all", capitalist society is pissed off with her for not having got it a present.

This is the real politics of envy. When us lefties get accused of it, our "envy" really amounts to condeming policies that create or perpetuate poverty, to wanting life opportunities for children to be earned and not bought, for incomes to be acquired by earnership and not ownership. Ours isn't envy, it's the urge for justice.

Right-wing envy though, is pathetic. Yeah, it's awful getting up to go to work. Mornings are shit. Commuting is shit. Jobs are shit. Bosses are shit. If we liked it we wouldn't have to be paid for it. But destituting other people won't get you a lie-in on a Monday morning. Right-wingers envy dole claimants for getting less than £70 a week to live on. Even though there's nothing they want from you, they hate and envy you for not giving it to them. Your housemate stares at you, burning with envy, because you're going to get the exact same portion as him. The only way to placate these people, who want nothing from you and resent you for it, is to pretend to be busy actively seeking work.

Long-term idleness is a problem. But it's not a problem for me personally. It's a problem for those that are stuck on it. Yet the "squeezed middle" who Tories, Labour and LibDems desperately chase round don't see that. For them, the victims of idleness are not the people condemned by a shortfall in jobs to low incomes and low social status. No, they are the perpetrators. The greasy, rotund, Burberry-covered perpetrators. The victim, as always, is sad middle-class tossers who have to look at poor people. And your housemate, Ed, would have rather you put the wooden spoons in alphabetical order than sit there having a chat. Which makes him sound an awful lot like Bill Hicks's boss.


  1. As somebody who likes working but struggles to get enough employment with the economy the way it is, I have to say that I'd far rather have one of those 500,000 jobs myself than see somebody who doesn't want to do it forced into it. I wonder how many of the comfortably employed would be happy to give up their jobs and swap with those terrible dole scroungers.

  2. I think that makes you "deserving poor".

    Though that's a point. If all the sanctimonious whiners gave their jobs to a dole scrounger, all the unemployed would be proper motivated people who would be willing to work if there were jobs. Problem solved!

  3. And (obvious point, usual disclaimers) let's not forget that modern monetarist inflation-control economies deliberately maintain a certain level of unemployment because it's (allegedly) good for the economy all round. And serves other useful functions.

    Unless your economic policies are specifically aimed at full employment (with all the problems that come with that), you've got a brass fucking neck moaning about the long-term unemployed.

  4. Oh definitely. Unemployment helps keep the supply of labour up and wages down. Plus, if we have more workers than jobs, then the more we demonise and degrade the leftovers for being left over, the more likely people are to accept cheaper wages and working conditions.

  5. Anonymous2/1/12 19:02

    A country in serious decline is one in which working people begin to resent people who are not working.
    I dont think it stems from the really rich mainly from people who work and are still struggling hard to make ends meet.
    Solution...a fairer wage structure

  6. Great piece. Idiot-proof and practically drawing diagrams, but I bet they still won't geddit.

  7. Good piece.

    Would be really enhanced if you had included the data about those who choose to not work.
    Quite damagingly for our politicians, there doesn't appear to be any evidence of it at all. None. It doesn;t seem to be collected. In other words, it is likely to be no more than a fiction to enable the destruction of the welfare state.

    And those households where no one has ever worked, those are housholds of students and people who are disabled (like the disabled kid who grew up)


  8. I'm guessing what happened with the three-generations-on-benefits-because-they-never-wanted-a-job myth is, it's not so much that it's real and prevalent, more that it's theoretically possible. A part of your mind whispering to you "I'd do that, if I wasn't for my smug middle-class work-ethic". So as soon as you see someone without one, you assume they're doing exactly what you would.