The welfare debate and the end of reason

The way in which the entire debate on benefits seems to be taking place entirely outside the realms of logic seems unprecedented, says Alex Andreou.

I am quite frightened. There have always been some unreasonable people in politics. However, the way in which the entire debate on benefits seems to be taking place entirely outside the realms of logic, seems unprecedented. The way in which evidence is openly sneered at, is nothing short of medieval. The End of Reason.

People going to work early in the morning were stopped outside a London tube station and "vox-popped" by Channel 4 News.

"What do you think about the proposed cap on benefits?", they were asked. "If I have to get up and go to work, I don't see why they shouldn't have to", said one person. "I think it's fair," said another. Challenged by the reporter on whether it's fair on someone who has just been made redundant and has been paying tax and NI for years, she added "well, obviously not them".

The debate earlier in the House of Commons displayed equal levels of Daily Mail common sense. A hissing Kris Hopkins MP suggested that unemployment was "a lifestyle choice". Aidan Burley MP - you know, the one that thinks Nazis are an appropriate theme for a party - read out a letter from an unnamed constituent, relating how she had heard from an unnamed friend, that she was claiming five hundred pounds a week in benefits.

Asked about trial schemes today, Chris Grayling - the dude in charge of Justice, no less - said: “The last Government was obsessed with pilots. Sometimes you just have to believe in something and do it.” That's right. None of your namby-pamby, pinko-leftie evidence rubbish. YEAH. We just think of stuff and do it. And, as the last budget proved, then hastily undo it.

And so it goes, the End of Reason.

A national debate, orchestrated from the top down, which cares not a jot for facts or evidence. Facilitated by the poison pumped daily through our television set, which has seeped so deep into our national muscle memory that we are no longer able to distinguish between Jeremy Kyle guests, chosen because they make for good voyeurism, and ordinary decent people. Our reaction as considered as that of a patellar ligament to a doctor's reflex hammer.

So, how do we fight it? Anger may well provide the energy, but it is not the whole answer. Reason, logic, truth are - and have always been - the precision instruments for dissecting hysterical phobias.

The Conservatives will continue to speak the language of fear. It suits them; it is all they know. They released this image yesterday.

Look at that little arrow. You're only getting that now. Look at that BIG ARROW. Someone else is getting that. Look at what all that scrounger waste can win you. Iain, show the contestants what is behind door number 1. Doctors! And behind door number 2? Teachers! And let's open door number 3. A tax cut of ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY POUNDS!

How exciting. So, what are we getting for sentencing two million innocent children to hunger? Well,  in fact, none of the above. NHS frontline staff numbers are declining, education is being hung, drawn and privatised and the tax burden on the majority of the electorate is higher than when the coalition took over.

But at least my arrow will get bigger, right?

Guess again. Quite contrary to the rhetoric of "making work pay" this measure does absolutely nothing to improve what work pays. As a matter of fact, making the 9 unemployed people chasing every 1 vacancy that much more desperate, is likely to have a deflationary effect on your wages. Your arrow is shrinking.

But at least this will get people back to work - the government keeps saying that. That's true, isn't it?

Wrong again. This bill does not create a single job. Indeed, the IMF recently admitted that cutting of precisely this sort has a disproportionately negative effect on growth. Essentially, by reducing the spending power of people who spend all their income on necessary goods and services (rather than those who squirrel it away in tropical island tax havens), local businesses sell less and the economy contracts.

What's that, Channel-4-News-lady-outside-the-tube-station? You work in a shop? Not for long. Soon, you will get your wish fulfilment. In a way. You won't have to resent those who don't get up to go to work. You will join them; with the added bonus of having the government that made you unemployed call you vermin. It may not be economic growth, but it is an opportunity for personal growth, don't you think?

So, what does it actually do, this bill? The short version: it attempts to plug a hole in the Government's forecasts, which keep getting revised down and down and further down, as if calculated by an over-enthusiastic limbo dancer. Only the savings are small, the hole is massive and their policies (including this one) are making it bigger. So, it's more like throwing a single shrimp into a shark's gaping mouth. Bad news for the shrimp, little effect on your chances of survival.

The added bonus is that nobody seems to be talking about huge multinationals paying no tax in this country, about which everybody seemed to be talking a month ago.

The End of Reason.

Several coalition MPs even suggested a link between rises in tax credits and the financial crisis. "Is there a direct correlation between the time that tax credits started," asked Marcus Jones MP, and "the start of the financial crisis"?

I would love to tell you that Hansard recorded the response: "Which crisis? The global one? The one that started in Iceland in financial institutions, spread to US  financial institutions and eventually reached the financial institutions of the UK? Of course there is no correlation, direct or indirect, you fucking numpty."

Sadly, the response by Alun Cairns MP was: "My Hon. Friend makes an excellent point". Pretty much any point is an excellent point, when you are witnessing the End of Reason.

An estate in Rochdale, named the most deprived area in the UK. Photo: Getty

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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Stop saying identity politics caused Trump

It's a wildly unsophisticated analysis that ignores the fact that all politics is inflected by identity.

Look, I don't mean to be funny, but is there something in the water supply? When Mark Lilla wrote his jeremiad against "identity liberalism" in the New York Times, it was comprehensively picked over and rebutted. But this zombie take has risen again. In the last 24 hours, all these tweets have drifted across my timeline:

And then this (now deleted, I think, probably because I was mean about it on Twitter).

And finally, for the hat-trick . . .

Isn't it beautiful to see a Blairite, a Liberal Leaver and a Corbynite come together like this? Maybe there is a future for cross-spectrum, consensual politics in this country.

These are all versions of a criticism which has swilled around since Bernie Sanders entered the US presidential race, and ran on a platform of economic populism. They have been turbocharged by Sanders' criticisms since the result, where he blamed Clinton's loss on her attempt to carve up the electorate into narrow groups. And they are now repeated ad nauseam by anyone wanting to sound profound: what if, like, Black Lives Matter are the real racists, yeah? Because they talk about race all the time.

This glib analysis has the logical endpoint that if only people didn't point out racism or sexism or homophobia, those things would be less of a problem. Talking about them is counterproductive, because it puts people's backs up (for a given definition of "people"). She who smelt it, dealt it.

Now, I have strong criticisms of what I would call Pure Identity Politics, unmoored from economics or structural concerns. I have trouble with the idea of Caitlyn Jenner as an "LGBT icon", given her longstanding opposition to gay marriage and her support for an administration whose vice-president appears to think you can electrocute the gay out of people. I celebrate female leaders even if I don't agree with their politics, because there shouldn't be an additional Goodness Test which women have to pass to be deemed worthy of the same opportunities as men. But I don't think feminism's job is done when there are simply a few more female CEOs or political leaders, particularly if (as is now the case) those women are more likely than their male peers to be childless. Role models only get you so far. Structures are important too.

I also think there are fair criticisms to be made of the Clinton campaign, which was brave - or foolish, depending on your taste - to associate her so explicitly with progressive causes. Stephen Bush and I have talked on the podcast about how hard Barack Obama worked to reassure White America that he wasn't threatening, earning himself the ire of the likes of Cornel West. Hillary Clinton was less mindful of the feelings of both White America and Male America, running an advert explicitly addressed to African-Americans, and using (as James Morris pointed out to me on Twitter) the slogan "I'm With Her". 

Watching back old Barack Obama clips (look, everyone needs a hobby), it's notable how many times he stressed the "united" in "united states of America". It felt as though he was trying to usher in a post-racial age by the sheer force of his rhetoric. 

As Obama told Ta-Nehisi Coates during his last days in office, he thought deeply about how to appeal to all races: 

"How do I pull all these different strains together: Kenya and Hawaii and Kansas, and white and black and Asian—how does that fit? And through action, through work, I suddenly see myself as part of the bigger process for, yes, delivering justice for the [African American community] and specifically the South Side community, the low-income people—justice on behalf of the African American community. But also thereby promoting my ideas of justice and equality and empathy that my mother taught me were universal. So I’m in a position to understand those essential parts of me not as separate and apart from any particular community but connected to every community."

Clinton's mistake was perhaps that she thought this caution was no longer needed.

So there are criticisms of "identity politics" that I accept, even as I wearily feel that - like "neoliberalism" - it has become a bogeyman, a dumpster for anything that people don't like but don't care to articulate more fully.

But there are caveats, and very good reasons why anyone pretending to a sophisticated analysis of politics shouldn't say that "identity politics caused Trump".

The first is that if you have an identity that any way marks you out from the norm, you can't change that. Hillary Clinton couldn't not be the first woman candidate from a major party running for the US presidency. She either had to embrace it, or downplay it. Donald Trump faced no such decision. 

The second is that, actually, Clinton didn't run an explicitly identity-focused campaign on the ground, at least not in terms of her being a woman. Through the prism of the press, and because of the rubbernecker's dream that is misogyny on social media, her gender inevitably loomed large. But as Rebecca Solnit wrote in the LRB:

"The Vox journalist David Roberts did a word-frequency analysis on Clinton’s campaign speeches and concluded that she mostly talked about workers, jobs, education and the economy, exactly the things she was berated for neglecting. She mentioned jobs almost 600 times, racism, women’s rights and abortion a few dozen times each. But she was assumed to be talking about her gender all the time, though it was everyone else who couldn’t shut up about it."

My final problem with the "identity politics caused Trump" argument is that it assumes that explicit appeals to whiteness and masculinity are not identity politics. That calling Mexicans "rapists" and promising to build a wall to keep them out is not identity politics. That promising to "make America great again" at the expense of the Chinese or other trading partners is not identity politics. That selling a candidate as an unreconstructed alpha male is not identity politics. When you put it that way, I do accept that identity politics caused Trump. But I'm guessing that's not what people mean when they criticise identity politics. 

Let's be clear: America is a country built on identity politics. The "all men" who were created equal notably excluded a huge number of Americans. Jim Crow laws were nothing if not identity politics. The electoral college was instituted to benefit southern slave-owners. This year's voting restrictions disproportionately affected populations which lean Democrat. There is no way to fight this without prompting a backlash: that's what happens when you demand that the privileged give up some of their perks. 

I don't know what the "identity politics caused Trump" guys want gay rights campaigners, anti-racism activists or feminists to do. Those on the left, like Richard Burgon, seem to want a "no war but the class war" approach, which would be all very well if race and gender didn't intersect with economics (the majority of unpaid care falls squarely on women; in the US, black households have far fewer assets than white ones.)

Those on the right, like Daniel Hannan, seem to just want people banging on about racism and homophobia to shut up because he, personally, finds it boring. Perhaps they don't know any old English poetry with which to delight their followers instead. (Actually, I think Hannan might have hit on an important psychological factor in some of these critiques: when conversations centre on anti-racism, feminism and other identity movements, white men don't benefit from their usual unearned assumption of expertise in the subject at hand. No wonder they find discussion of them boring.)

Both of these criticisms end up in the same place. Pipe down, ladies. By complaining, you're only making it worse. Hush now, Black Lives Matter: white people find your message alienating. We'll sort out police racism... well, eventually. Probably. Just hold tight and see how it goes. Look, gay people, could you be a trifle... less gay? It's distracting.

I'm here all day for a discussion about the best tactics for progressive campaigners to use. I'm sympathetic to the argument that furious tweets, and even marches, have limited effect compared with other types of resistance.

But I can't stand by while a candidate wins on an identity-based platform, in a political system shaped by identity, and it's apparently the fault of the other side for talking too much about identity.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.