If there is one thing that our political classes want us never to forget, it’s that we’re rubbish.
Four decades ago, we came to the conclusion we couldn’t manufacture things. If we tried, we only ended up striking. If we actually made something, it was rubbish anyway. When we came up with ideas, they were rubbish. Don’t even try to make them. Some other country can do it better.
So we stopped trying to compete with Japan, or Germany.
Gradually we learned that government was rubbish. Not the government, but government itself. It could never deliver anything. It just borrowed too much, and raised taxes. So we came to elect politicians who were absolutely convinced that government was rubbish, and had to stop any attempt to make our lives better, or safer, or healthier. Their job was to run the country down, and run government down.
From that it was obvious that we couldn’t deliver or manage public services. So they had to go: railways, telecommunications, water, energy, and most recently the NHS and post services. All rubbish. We just can’t do any of this. We can’t run prisons, or probation, or police each other, or be trusted in public spaces. Stop trying.
We’ve learnt that our old people are rubbish, just because they’re still here and we can’t afford them any more.
We’ve learnt that our kids are rubbish, so stupid we’ve had to make up easier and easier exams for them to pass just so we can pretend they’re not.
We’ve learnt that we’re all rubbish; because we want too much pay, and time off work. Because everyone else part from ourselves is skiving on benefits, and not hard-working. We’re rubbish compared to the Chinese, or Singaporeans, because we don’t want to go back to Victorian working conditions and because (never forget) our kids are stupid and lazy, and we’re rubbish parents.
We’ve learnt we’re so rubbish that we have to be spied wherever we go and whatever we do. We can’t be trusted.
So here we are. Rubbish. Crap at everything.
Except for the very few of us who can extract rent, we are the fallen.
And if we keep believing what the elite want us to believe, we deserve what we get from them.
There were many flavours of gnosticism, but they all – at least those derived from Judaism or Christianity – had some things in common.
A particular creation myth, and obsession with the first generations of people.
A conviction that redemption is found not through atonement or forgiveness, but through ignorance. Only through complete lack of knowledge and critical thinking could you make that sudden and complete realisation of the gnosis, the vast and complex conspiracy which explained how the world really worked.
A conviction that this world is evil.
Evolution is a fake, and creationism the truth; Obama is a fake president, and not the real one; the Founding Fathers were fakes, not the servants of God who really created the Constitution; there is a vast conspiracy of evil in the world which can be called communism: a Manichean battle being waged against the forces of public education, public health and public debt, science, and gun-deniers and corrupted religions.
Gnosticism seems to have erupted again amongst the Tea Party and in the Republican parts of the USA.
Why would you do something for someone else?
- Because you are in – or wish to establish or develop – a relationship. By doing so, you wish to demonstrate your positive feelings and your worth.
- Because you wish to reciprocate, in order to continue a relationship.
- Because your morals or ethics demand that you do so, while not expecting any reciprocal act; you act out of goodness.
- Because you feel an obligation to do so; you feel indebted to someone.
- Because you feel impelled to do so from your understanding of your culture or society.
- Because you wish to take advantage, by doing something for selfish gain and with no intention to reciprocate.
- Because you are paid to do so.
- Because you are forced to do so through indebtedness: not a social obligation, but a form of peonage.
- Because you are forced to do so through threat of – or actual – violence.
You might try to classify these reasons into those where the obligation – the debt caused by your action – can be redeemed through payment of money. I would argue that for the first four it certainly can’t. You would be disappointed or insulted if money were offered in return, because accepting money would change or devalue your original act and its purpose, and your self-image.
The use of money to settle social debts destroys social relationships, and damages esteem and virtue. The first four reasons can be called ’Human Debts’.
You could include reason five in the Human reasons, but as long as there is no punishment for failure other than guilt.
The neoliberal world-view admits only to reasons six and seven. All activity is to be mediated through payment ( usually referred to as “the market” or “markets”); although purely selfish acts are permissible provided they are a step to personal gain. It can admit reason five, but only if the prevailing cultural imperative is to act selfishly; not selflessly or to form a personal or social relationship. These, then, are the ‘Neoliberal Debts’.
Clearly – to anyone but a neoliberal – Human Debts not only exist but predominate in our social relationships. It is therefore inevitable that neoliberals use governments to create and exploit ‘Punishment Debts’ – (reasons eight and nine) as punishment for avoiding ‘the markets’. This is why neoliberal states – although they praise deregulation and claim to protect against the evils of communism – will always massively increase surveillance and regulation of the individual and of public services, in a forlorn but increasingly violent attempt to end Human Debts.
(Of course Human Debts extend into private business as well, because we can’t help being human. Thus neoliberalism has generated managerialism, command-and-control management, management by arbitrary targets and ‘performance’: anything to deter us from interacting through Human Debts.)
Punishment Debts must have existed as long as Human Debts. The links between monetary indebtedness, debt peonage, and slavery are well established. These are inevitably generated by inequality of power and of monetary wealth: the powerful and wealthy exact redemption of both honour and monetary debt through peonage and slavery.
So what of workfare, a compulsion by government to do something for someone in order to receive welfare; and unpaid internship?
Workfare presumes a debt is owed by the person who would receive it to the state. Someone in need of support is by definition assumed to be a burden, a moral bankrupt through their fecklessness, a failure. Workfare is Punishment Debt: as the Government exacts work for what it perceives as a debt owed to the government, or the state; usually misrepresented as a debt to people in work.
(Remember in neoliberal thinking there can be no debt to society, because society does not exist. The neoliberal state therefore has to create a fiction to replace society – like the mythical collection of “hard working people”).
The neoliberal justifies unpaid internship under reason six, as a purely selfish act. Yet this could only apply if the unpaid intern had sufficient income or wealth to act selfishly: anyone else (unless they are helping someone for reason 3) is only acting on a Punishment Debt. As with workfare, compulsion through the alternatives of poverty, penality, and public castigation are the violence threatened.
At this point, it is worth considering the complementary question to this: why would you pay anyone to work?
[The greatest influences on this post: David Graeber "Debt: The First 5000 Years" ; Michael Sandel "What Money Can't buy"]
There are four posters on the pillar between the two receptionists: the topmost above the standing eyeline, just the largest print legible. The brightest, bounded in red, demands “HAVE YOU SWITCHED OFF YOUR MOBILE ‘PHONE?”
I haven’t. I’m not clear why I need to. To my left, an adult is using his mobile to tell someone that everything’s OK and they will soon be home.
The topmost poster tells me the government demands that they must ask for my residency status. I happen to be English, as far back as amateur genealogy can get, pretty much. I wonder how I might prove it. I wonder what might prompt the request: a beard? A funny colour?
There are two posters next to each other. The one on the left asks me to show my EHIC. The one on the right tells me that I might not be entitled to free care.
A ‘phone begins to ring somewhere behind reception. It carries on ringing.
The receptionist to the right of the pillar is dealing with what I assume to be parent and daughter, or might be coach and daughter. She wears a hockey skirt and a Pudsey homemade bandage at an odd angle around her head.
The receptionist to my left calls me forward. She has no record of the person I am looking for. Could I go and check at the other A&E entrance? No, that’s where I just came from. They had no record and had directed me to this reception. I had set off ten minutes after the ambulance and had definitely not overtaken it.
There is a fading photograph on the wall behind her, an artist’s impression of a new and futuristic hospital with twin towers. To our left, a gaping hole in the corridor wall is filled with blue sheeting hanging from scaffolding. She starts to search again, and all is resolved as an ambulance crew comes round the corner with the paperwork. I am able to correct the address as he reads it out. He takes me round the corner.
The patient is on a trolley bed, looking better than I expected. He is about to go round to x-ray. There are a handful of people sitting on plastic chairs in the neighbouring corridor. It is not busy.
But then the ambulance was on its way back to Luton after going to Cambridge, where A&E was packed. I follow the trolley around the corner, guiltily wondering at the residency status of the person pushing the trolley. He swings it into a narrow gap between a pillar and the door: I immediately understand the dents and notches in the door.
There is a short wait for x-ray, then back whence we came. My wait is passed as the patient on the next trolley, which swings into the now-vacant gap, seeks conversation.
There is no-one there. We wait a few minutes, then I step outside to tell a nurse that we are back from x-ray. In moments, she leaves her PC and comes in to start bandaging. That completed we mention the cannula, which she removes. What about the crutches, we ask, as we set off for the door, awkwardly using a wheelchair. No need for those.
We pass the nurses’ station. A perhaps more senior nurse (everyone wears different coloured uniforms: there is no means of telling what they mean) says something, and crutches are provided. Then a leaflet on how to use them.
We make only one false turn, but are corrected by two passing visitors. We leave the wheelchair beside a vending machine, exit via an automatic door, and make for the car. As we drive, an ambulance, blue lights on, heads the way we have just come.
I was trying to explain to someone how Ofsted causes such immense stress and dysfunctional behaviour in schools: how primary school teachers spend twice their teaching hours every day plus time at weekends to do the demanded paperwork; how schools make data show value add; how teachers are terrified of taking over an assessment of (and target for) a pupil they know to be fiction; how heads dread that phone call for months, even years.
Then I remembered how The Sopranos provided such a perfect metaphor for US society under neoliberalism. And the right metaphor for what Ofsted does came right after.
Dear Secretary of State,
I read that your intention is to interfere with the pay mechanism of the National Health Service. Could I point out this is none of your (expletive deleted) business?
In April 2013, you were able to slough off the responsibility for the provision of healthcare to England, thanks to the competition-loving craziness of your predecessor and over two years of misinformation and posturing by Coalition parliamentarians, unreported and unchallenged by a pliant press. You were legally changed into a promoter of healthcare in England, and chief marketeer of the “brand” to foreign countries.
Then just a few days ago, you announced that you were going to dump your accountability and responsibility for patient care and safety onto some unelected quango.
You are not the Chief Executive of the NHS, you are not its leader. All you are responsible for is setting the overall budget, and to be honest it’s the felon-in-chief at The Treasury who tells you what that is going to be.
So leave it to the actual managers and staff of the NHS to work out the most efficient and effective ways to spend that budget, and if they want to stand by existing pay deals which make privatisation more expensive and carpet-bags more difficult to fill, then suck it up.
The Putney Debates