How food insecurity keeps the workforce cowed
From the Guardian, by Richard Seymour (Link)
“Lambeth council is turning to food banks in order to manage the crisis of soaring poverty in the borough. This is never a good sign. When soup kitchens started to appear in large numbers in the US during the 1980s, it was supposed to be a form of crisis management. Now they have become a threadbare safety net for masses of jobless and working poor Americans as the welfare system fails them. Dependence on charitable food provision has soared during the recession. Evidence suggests that they don’t begin to meet the nutritional needs of those who use them.
The trend is for what is supposed to be a temporary stopgap to become a permanent part of the welfare system. It turns welfare into an entrepreneurial wild west, dependent on often inexperienced providers, institutionalising and stabilising chronic insecurity and undernourishment for millions. Whereas in the postwar era poverty was residual or the product of the economic cycle, it has acquired a structural permanence. Nor can this be assumed to be an accidental outcome. States that cut welfare systems are knowing actors, well-placed to evaluate the predictable effects of their actions.
In the 1980s, when neoliberal policies were being rolled out, the sociologist Göran Therborn wrote of “the Brazilianisation of advanced capitalism”. He pointed out that even in the crisis-ridden 1970s and early 1980s, mass unemployment was not inevitable provided there were institutional commitments to promote full employment. The rise of joblessness was not a force of nature but a strategic choice.
Paired with a shift from welfare to the punitive management of poverty, the result would be, as in Brazil, a trichotomous division of society. At the top would be the obscenely rich, capitalists and top business managers. In the middle would be stably employed workers, middle-class professionals and so on. And at the bottom would be the poorest sectors of the working class, permanently unemployed or underemployed, insecure and subject to increasing moral regulation by the state.
The spread of precarity was thus an intended effect of the reforms, and this is the real social basis for ideological memes such as “the underclass” or “the precariat”. The ideological code for the effect sought is “the discipline of the market” (a phrase that reminds one of Francis Begbie’s minatory growls about “the discipline ay the basebaw bat”). The politico-caloric calculation is that imposed food insecurity is a motive force in improving productivity. Take away their benefits, and they have to work. The idea that the threat of starvation is the only real guarantee of capitalist dynamism, and that welfare causes stagnation, is an old one in conservative thought, going back to Edmund Burke. But it was only in the late 20th century that this elite political philosophy was converted into a popular moral idiom, a reactionary common sense.
The ideology of the “big society” is naturally implicated here. A key ideological source for this doctrine is Marvin Olasky, whose concept of “compassionate conservatism” has guided both Republicans and Tories. Olasky’s premise is that the state provision of welfare should be replaced by funding of charitable services run by churches and other voluntary groups. In that way, he suggests, those who most needed help would receive not only sustenance but the chance of a transformative encounter with another human being.
The result under the Bush administration was that the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives channelled billions of dollars to church-based services dealing with homeless people and drug addicts. Instead of welfare being a means to cope with market failure, supporting workers when employers do not, it became a means of moral regulation. The idea was that to be unemployed, addicted, homeless or hungry was to have merely a personal misfortune, reflecting personal failure. The recipient of such welfare is thus not just dependent, but at a moral deficit. The flipside of this paternalistic humanitarianism was the fear and loathing for the poor, which in the UK has been expressed in the spiteful locution “chav”.
However, it would be mistaken to suppose that such precarity is restricted to the bottom rung of society. The effects of precarity run right up the chain of social classes and strata. While the urban poor are the most directly blighted, poverty and malnourishment act as a whip to discipline the whole workforce. The threat is not just of perpetual insecurity and hunger, but also of losing the status of respectability conferred by employment, and thus “self-reliance”. And as Shanene Thorpe discovered, as welfare is shredded, the boundaries of respectability are shifting upwards, including more people in the ranks of the culpable “underclass”. Those fortunate enough to stay just the right side of this divide will have added motivation to be compliant; docile toward social superiors, viciously competitive towards everyone else. Now we are all precarious.”
University of Cape Town