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Laurie Penny: The Chancellor’s an economic sadist – and we love it

There's something about punishment and hierarchy that holds a guilty appeal for the British public.

This is going to hurt. Perverts and politicians love a bit of dirty talk and for months the coalition government has been intimating exactly what it is going to do to us, oiling us up with simple, seductive moral offensives on the poor and vulnerable in anticipation of the economic violence to come.

This past week it was university funding; before that, it was child benefit. Now, Chancellor George Osborne's cuts have been revealed in all their glory and no government department has been saved from the coalition horsewhip.

Unsure where the first blow would fall, the country seemed to freeze into some kind of rigid inertia, refusing to acknowledge the totality of our barelyelected leaders' assault on social democracy, on the postwar Attlee settlement, on welfare and health care and everything that once made life on this rainy island bearable. The proper term for this approach is not "economic masochism", in the shadow chancellor's phrasing, but fiscal sadism.

Power games

Only politicians and perverts truly understand sadism. Amateurs think that sadism, fiscal or otherwise, is about hurting people. They are mistaken. Sadism is not about pain. It is about power. It is about the power to inflict pain at random, for no reason, with the most cartoonish and fetishistic of implements, just because you can.

Sadism is about having the power to decide when and if and how much to hurt people, because that kind of control makes you feel important, because that's how you get off.

This is precisely the sort of power play we are dealing with, on both a national and a global scale, as the oligarchies of the world react to the public humiliation of the recession with whiplash efficiency. The phenomenon of fiscal sadism is not unique to this government, although the wet-towel-whipping changing rooms of exclusive private schools do perhaps foster a specific fetish for kinky brutality.

The fiscal sadism of these cuts is part of an international war on social democracy whose agenda is mutating into a terrifying form of kamikaze capitalism. However this government wishes to dress up its decisions, whether in the language of economic pretext or a little rubber dress, there is still no pressing reason for these cuts to be made at such colossal speed, in so calculatedly regressive a fashion, besides the ugly Conservative conviction that poverty is a moral failing.

There are patently more efficient ways to make savings than slashing the heart out of the welfare state. For example, the money saved from George Osborne's crackdowns on benefit fraud could be recouped simply by persuading one man -- the government's efficiency tsar, Philip Green, to pay his taxes like the rest of us. This is not about saving money. This is about control. They plan to hurt us because they want to show us that they can.

The truly awful thing, though, is that we like it. There's a guilty appeal to the easy narrative of punishment and hierarchy, especially if it seems -- whisper it -- that only people worse off than us will really be taking the full whack of the Chancellor's changing-room economics. The French, who, as amply demonstrated this month, don't quite have our fetish for grumbling political obeisance, describe bondage and sadomasochism (BDSM)
as "the British perversion"; perhaps there is something in our national character that delights in ritualised deference, especially if it stings a bit.

Make it hurt

It can be grotesquely reassuring to know that someone else is taking charge, even if they're doing so cruelly. Just as sadism is about power, masochism is about the pleasurable surrender of power.

The right-wing press has squealed in gleeful horror every time a new cut was announced, their only real objections being to the relatively minor excisions from the defence budget. Unfortunately, nobody has yet questioned whether there will be anything left worth defending when the Tories have finished slashing the state into submission.

I have many dear friends who enjoy a little private torment, but the proper place for savage power play is not the theatre of politics. Those in power have co-opted us into a dangerous game of kamikaze capitalism and if we want to continue to live in a country with pretensions to freedom, tolerance and justice, we have to risk rearing up against our chains and ruining the game. We have to risk a bolder refusal to submit to this sick assault on social democracy.

We need to throw their filthy talk back in their faces, before it's too late.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, What a carve up!

Photo: Getty
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Could Labour implement universal basic income?

The battle over this radical policy is moving gradually into the mainstream.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has called universal basic income (UBI) “an idea whose time may well have come”. It means a fixed regular payment to each citizen, irrespective of income or behaviour. It is seen by both socialists and Silicon Valley as a panacea for the post-industrial world, addressing unrestrained inequality, economic insecurity, and automation-generated unemployment in the modern economy.

Guy Standing, a professor at Soas and founding member of Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), says a “perfect storm of factors have suddenly pushed us into being a mainstream policy question” in recent years. “A lot of people who were sitting on their hands, as it were, have started to come out in favour ... I'm inundated with requests to speak and involvement in conferences, and it's indicative of the sudden realisation that if the growing inequality and growing economic insecurities persist, then the drift to fascist populism will continue. 

“Of course, in the background, a lot of these techies including prominent names in Silicon Valley have come out in favour because they see robots displacing us all. I don't buy that argument, but it's added to a growing chorus of people saying that we should take it more seriously.”

Standing's recent book charts the long history of thinking about UBI (through ancient Greece, Thomas More, and Martin Luther King). But the idea's rise to prominence is the result of a interlinked developments in the economy and the nature of work. As Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds argues, changes such as the rise of self-employment and the gig economy challenge the appropriateness of the traditional welfare state. It's “based around the principle of compulsion, and broadly believing there's two binary states – people in work, and people out of work. We know it's becoming a much more complicated picture than that... The state can't keep up with the complexity of people's lives.”

For Standing, the prospects of UBI being implemented successfully depend largely on how it is framed. He is wary of libertarians who see it as an opportunity to dismantle the welfare state, and believes it needs to be placed within the context of chronic economic insecurity for a growing number within the post-industrial economy.

“The argument that I think is going to prove really important for the left is linked to the growth of the 'precariat',” he says, meaning those living without predictability or security. “People in the precariat are experiencing chronic insecurity that will not be overcome by any existing policy.” 

Even so, support from business could be key. Peter Swenson's work on the history of the welfare state finds that reforms and expansions of social policy have only succeeded when key sections of the capitalist class are in support. He, and other academics, resist the idea that the welfare state is simply the focal point for the battle between left and right over Robin-Hood style redistribution. If UBI is to make its way into policy, support from business may be more important than the strengthening of the left.

Reynolds claims UBI may solve not just policy problems, but political ones.  "You have to say that Labour's situation, in terms of how we've struggled on all of these issues (the party's polling is significantly behind on running the welfare state) over the last few years, means that we should definitely be open to new thinking in this area.” Both he and Standing  are part of the working group that was brought together by McDonnell in February to produce a publication on the issue before the next general election, which would then be discussed across the country. Understandably, the group didn't quite meet its deadline. But Standing says “the general thrust of the plans hasn't changed”.

Standing is hopeful that important sections of the Labour Party are either in support, or can be won over. Clearly, the leadership is generally supportive of the idea – both McDonnell and Corbyn have expressed as much in public statements. Standing says many MPs are “rethinking their position ... many of them have not taken up a position because they thought that this was not an issue to be considered. I think we're seeing a real opening for a much more constructive discussion.”

Reynolds says that “there's people on the right and the left of the party who are in favour, there's people on the right and the left who are against”.
 
Nevertheless, discussion is winning over important Labour constituencies. It's not just radical activist groups, but also trade unions, who are coming round to the idea. According to Standing: “Unite now supports it, as well as a lot of unions in Europe. It used to be the case that the unions were among the most fierce critics of a basic income, on the spurious grounds (in my view) that if people had a basic income they wouldn't push for higher wages and employers wouldn't give higher wages.

“We found in our pilots and in our psychological research that people who have basic security have a stronger bargaining position and are therefore more likely to stand up for their rights, and can lead to improvement in wages and working conditions. So I think that all of those objections are gradually being exposed by theoretical arguments against them, or empirical evidence, from pilots.”

Reynolds agrees that “there's a lot of support coming from the wider labour movement”, but warns that people must not be too optimistic about anything happening quickly. “Clearly it's going to need a radical change to how the tax and benefits system would work, and you'd obviously be completely recasting how personal allowances work, and all of that,” he says. “I think this is sort of the cutting edge of thinking about the future and what our economy will look like in 50-100 years' time, that is the frame that we're looking at.” 

Rudy Schulkind is a Danson scholar who recently graduated in philosophy and politics from St Anne's College Oxford.