Removing ‘Child-Poverty’ …targets, but not actual existing poverty: A Neoliberal Repertoire

In Uncategorized on December 22, 2016 by chr1sr0berts

As was recently reported, the Conservative Government have now decided to close the “Child Poverty Unit”. In justifying their decision, the following phrase did rather leap off the page: “…amid a *restructuring of goals around a wider measure of life chances, also taking in issues such as debt and addiction*”

It is a classic of the neoliberal repertoire, “Life chances” are a vague notion, as such, they can be folded into personal responsibility. All responsibility for one’s own position in life is loaded onto the (somewhat slender) shoulders of individuals. And if you don’t grab your “life-chances”, hey, you only have yourself to blame. One small glimmer is that at least the term “debt” is mentioned as an issue, though the extent to which debt will also be assumed to be a wholly personal decision (as opposed to an almost inevitable condition in neoliberal Britain) is another matter. Removing the social in favour of the individual (responsibility) is of course not new, but in closing the unit, and ceasing to measure child-poverty, I can scarcely remember so brazen an admission of systemic failure (not that it will be framed this way of course) Because, as the superb Arundhati Roy explains:

“Poverty too, like feminism, is often framed as an identity problem. As though the poor had not been created by injustice but are a lost tribe who just happen to exist, and can be rescued in the short term by a system of grievance redressal (administered by NGOs on an individual, person-to-person basis), and whose long-term resurrection will come from Good Governance — under the regime of Global Corporate Capitalism, it goes without saying.” (Arundhati Roy, Capitalism: A Ghost Story)

As important as the removal of the child-poverty targets by the government, is Roy’s use of the term capitalism. While one action conceals, the other action (of writing) names and reveals. In fact, the very term capitalism was, until the onset of the GFC in 2007/08 only really uttered on the far left. Perhaps in University research and teaching in Economics departments, though, here, too it seems to have fallen out of favour. The term, and critique of it as a social and economic system, or “Mode of production” clung on in sociology, (some of the more critical) Business Studies programmes, Cultural Studies (what remains of it), History and Human Geography, but elsewhere, and particularly in both politics and media, capitalism as the only show in town, (Thatcher’s “There Is No Alternative” (TINA), springs to mind, and was recently revived by the then Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron) gained such currency that to offer even marginal critique of it would cast you as an outrider. We can see traces of this erasure in the Government’s decision to close down the unit. To remove the cause itself, not from governance, but merely from view. 

This latest move by the Tories clearly indicates that not only are they not capable or even vaguely interested in “eliminating child poverty” but they cannot (or refuse to) even see or name the system(ic problem) staring us all in the face. Any act of resistance needs to factor this in, we need to identify and name the system (and systemic) failings that cast some aside while simultaneously lifting others. One does not need to be a Marxist to see the systemic failings, one just needs to be alive and alert.

Alongside the closure of the Child Poverty Unit, and Cameron’s revival of TINA, come the terms “global race” and being “lean and competitive“. Employing such athletic metaphors might serve politicians well – they paint a picture of athletic, competitive winners – but do very little for the rest of us (other than push us into penury). In a way, the terms are part of the same political trajectory as the closing of the Child Poverty Unit. If you can’t actually fully ignore the problem – because the evidence of poverty is (of course) in front of our very eyes, then shift the terms of the debate (the discourse) and load responsibility onto individuals, to be “lean and competitive” in the “global race”. Don’t name the problem, shift the focus…onto YOU (and your failings).

On the same morning the Guardian reported the closure of the Child Poverty Unit, the strikes by Southern Rail were continuing. On the 19th December, James O’Brien had delivered a perfectly apposite description of the ways in which media hegemony operates. A mere two days later, Weds 21st December 2016, a caller to LBC Radio called James O’Brien. The caller, simultaneously furious at the strikes but lauding the vitality and genius of (publicly paid for research that produced) algorithms suggested that an algorithm has successfully operated the DLR for years. Now, while this is true, the caller failed to explain how, if deployed more widely, across dozens or 100’s of different sectors, the 1000’s, perhaps millions of people displaced would earn enough to eat, house, and clothe themselves and their families. In political economy terms, they would lack sufficient ability to “reproduce their own labour power”. In political terms, they and their families would perhaps fall in to “poverty” and be in need of the exact kind of assistance the Child-Poverty Unit was originally designed to provide. Alas…

Just to be absolutely clear, I long for the day we can allow automation to do more work, but there are problems here aren’t there? The problems – as I see them at least – are not in technological innovations per se, but are instead inherent in the particular social relations through which the technology and innovation was and still is deployed. The point is not that problematic outcomes are inherent in the technology, or that technological innovations and developments can be “blamed” or are “bad”. More that technological innovation is deployed through a particular form of social relations. In this we return to Arundhati Roy’s naming of the system. Capitalism – certainly its neoliberal variant.

Technological development is supposed to be (is) transformative, but the transformations are not being realised, shared or redistributed for us all. The technological developments and innovations have not been used to ‘transform society’ at all, but, to borrow a phrase from the “Regulation School” and in the words of Jeremy Gilbert, “have instead been used to modify and solidify the ‘regime of accumulation’”.

It is in these circumstances and this context, that the Southern Rail strike need to be located. The only option for those under threat, is to use the means of political organisation and expression available and appropriate for the current moment. So, in the current situation – where tech innovation is used to accumulate capital while labour is crushed under its heel – strikes are the only option. Basically, until we transition to an economy that deploys the technological means we have at our disposal to benefit us all, withdrawing one’s labour (currently a defensive move designed to grimly cling on to the things gained over the last century) is the only option.

What might be better is for the technological gains to be deployed, shared, used or re-imagined as a means to provide for us all. If we continue to live under the same model of social and political economy, in which technological innovation is used to crush labour, then (with apologies for repetition) in time, there will be too few employment “opportunities” for the population to earn enough to feed, clothe and house themselves and their (our) families.

In these circumstances, what do the government do? Do they think about, debate, propose policies to expropriate some of the technological gains (for which much of the R&D was initially paid for using public money ? Do they propose investing in more R&D so that the transition to an automative, technologically efficient society, perhaps with the guaranteed social wage? No, they close the Child-Poverty Unit, assume poverty is entirely the fault of “failing” individuals, and encourage us to join the “global race” to become more “lean and competitive”. In this context, what do the terms “global race” and “lean and competitive” mean? If accepted by us – how hegemony works – then they mean the odds are not stacked in favour of most of us.



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