Tuesday 17 May 2022

In a sense it really is our own fault


Yesterday’s story about the government minister who suggested that people who are struggling to get by should work longer hours or get a better job tells us a lot about the underlying philosophy of the current government, and is a form of victim-blaming. If people are unable to get by on their income, this is, apparently, not because employers are underpaying them, nor is it anything to do with legislation which allows employers to pay less than a living wage, or the actions of the benefits agency in threatening to withhold benefits from people who don’t take low-paid work. No, according to the Tory gospel, it’s their own fault for staying in poorly-paid employment. Whilst there was something of a grudging admission that changing jobs or working longer hours wouldn’t work for everyone, the way the exception was phrased suggests a belief that it is indeed the answer for most.

The idea that people can and should better themselves with no need for legislation or assistance is a key fallacy of Tory ideology, but it lies behind a lot of their thinking, and deliberately conflates the idea of ‘anybody’ with ‘everybody’. As a general rule (although there are always some exceptions), it is true that ‘anyone’ can get a better job, just as ‘anyone’ can become a successful billionaire entrepreneur. And their idea of social justice is based on that idea that opportunities are equal, with its concomitant that anyone who doesn’t do either or both of those things therefore has only themselves to blame. Poverty, in their eyes, is the fault of the poor themselves; people who do not enjoy ‘success’ are just life’s losers. But here’s the point: whilst it’s true that ‘anyone’ can get a better job or become a billionaire, it doesn’t follow that ‘everyone’ can. Indeed it would be impossible for ‘everyone’ to do so. Whilst some doors might theoretically be open to ‘anyone’, we know that only a limited number can pass through them before the room becomes full. We also know that which people pass through them isn’t simply a matter of individual determination; there’s also a good amount of luck involved, to say nothing of the individual’s background.

Let us take as an example, a certain B Johnson, currently the temporary resident of number 10, Downing Street. In theory, anyone in the UK could have ended up living at his current address, but given his limited ability, his utter inconsistency, and his penchant for lies, would he be in the same place today had he been brought up on a council estate? Would he have ever gone to Eton? And without going to Eton, would he ever have got into Oxford? And without both of those things happening, would the Conservative Party ever have endorsed a man (let alone a woman) with such a cavalier disregard for the law and for truth, who is known to have conspired with another to have a journalist beaten up, and who has been fired from two jobs for lying, as a candidate for parliament, never mind for PM? Background, and more particularly parental income and wealth, to say nothing of the consequential power relationships, matter; they matter a lot.

It suits the Tories, though, to blame the poor for their own plight. It suits them even better to blame the poor for the fact that those above the poverty line are also struggling. From their perspective, it’s far better for the not-so-well-off to blame the even poorer for their situation than to encourage them to look at where the power and wealth are being increasingly concentrated. The words of the hapless minister yesterday weren’t a mistake or a slip of the tongue, they were part of a deliberate culture of victim-blaming. One thing that is entirely the fault of those of us who are not part of their priviliged elite is allowing them to get away with it.

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