Sunday, 6 April 2014

"Benefit scroungers" and the "undeserving poor"

John Keane's historical biography Thomas Paine: A Political Life provides an insightful portrayal of the ruthless state and church-sanctioned cruelty levelled against the hapless poor of the Georgian era in 18th century England. Within the context of Paine's birthplace, Thetford, Keane accounts how those accused of petty criminality, or "crimes" such as a failure to pay stipends from meager incomes to the national church, would be imprisoned in dungeons upon arrest by sheriffs. Then facing trial from the crown's magistrates, they would face flogging, hanging, or deportation to the Empire's penal colonies.

There was a designated segregation of the paupers which easily reflects present political rhetoric. The "deserving poor" (read "hardworking people"), such as those of a certain level of disability, old age, or perceived work ethic, would be granted a rationing from local funds of monetary provision to sustain themselves. But the "undeserving poor" (read "workshy benefit scroungers"), those considered to able to work despite an impairment causing difficulty to engage in labours demanded of them, would either be banished to destitution or to other communities in organisational social cleansing. Informed by religious fundamentalism deferent to patriarchal aristocracy, women who became pregnant out of wedlock (the hated single mother) would be similarly driven out of town and stigmatised.

This is why it is fundamentally misguided for left-wing commentators to cite dehumanisation of social welfare claimants as a phenomena engineered in recent decades by mass-market tabloid newspapers or political campaigns, when it has been culturally embedded in the social narrative for centuries. Indeed, Beveridge's welfare state was founded upon the notion of a contributory ethos to distinguish the deserving impoverished from the feckless, which the right-wing intelligentsia are keen to make note of. Iain Duncan Smith's agenda, on behalf of the Conservative Party, is to primarily deepen the poverty of those non-"hardworking" undeserving plebeians in a regime of institutional punishment, as opposed to addressing the structural economic malaise that perpetuates poverty for the employed, unemployed and vulnerable alike.

There is no doubt that Paine's sense of social and economic injustice was informed by the torture and execution of the "undeserving poor" in Thetford, who lived under the jackboot of landowning aristocratic families, who much like today's multinational corporations hoarded wealth and corruptly influenced government and local political orders to act in their favour. Paine, of course, was the first to moot the concept of a guaranteed basic income in his Agrarian Justice. In the true spirit of philosophical liberalism, a universal basic income would provide a fixed sum of money to every citizen as a human right, regardless of their preexisting income level or socioeconomic status. In an act of truly libertarian anti-statism, it would abolish the need for a government-controlled welfare state that implicitly sustains class divisions and impoverishment through the rationing of resources that are sparse in the grand scheme of national capitalist wealth.

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