On Big Issues and Big Society.
No one supports the Big Issue more than Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith. An eye-catching headline run by The Big Issue itself was followed by understandable outcry below the line – how can a man overseeing welfare reform support The Big Issue, champions of the homeless?
Much like ATOS sponsoring the paralympics, scratch the surface and this isn't really so ironic. The Big Issue's philosophy sits happily alongside the neoliberal agenda of rolling back state provision of even the most basic services to make way for such wonderful things as promoting self-reliance, encouraging independence, developing resilience and instilling a sense of work ethic and responsibility in citizens. Which all sound great - working not begging! A hand up, not a hand out! Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime!
The article in question was a friendly interview with IDS after he had appeared mildly critical of TBI on a C4 news broadcast. TBI have a great relationship with the Conservative party and once it'd been clarified that Duncan Smith was not criticising TBI, just the increasing amount of eastern Europeans who are selling it (they can go pull their bootstraps up elsewhere thank you very much) TBI founder John Bird and Duncan Smith proceeded to pretty much agree on everything else.
John Bird is a prick
The Big Issue illustrates the neoliberal route out of poverty – there is no structural change needed other than the further removal of safety nets for vulnerable people (more on that later), individuals can haul themselves out of poverty by hard work and dedicated entrepreneurship, the money comes from the public by choice, not tax or charity. This last part is particularly important – vendors' jackets instruct their customers “when you buy the magazine please take it” underneath the large “WORKING NOT BEGGING” - this is capitalist trade, not a hand out, not charity.
This message is emphasised by TBI as often as possible, for example TBI's collaboration with Saatchi & Saatchi1 , where the dignity of work in and of itself is given primary importance. For Iain Duncan Smith, money isn't even the most important part of working:
Iain Duncan Smith
My point about work is not just about money, it’s about self-belief and a sense of who you are. In some senses, it’s a more important feature of work – without that focus of achieving something we aren’t able to do all sorts of other things, you just don’t have that focus to do it.
John Bird, in the same piece, makes it clear that TBI's approach is perfectly in line with Duncan Smith's vision for welfare reform:
I’ve always had contempt for the way the social security and welfare system are used to stop social mobility. We started 23 years ago to say no to handouts – handouts kill you. We want to find a way where we can buttress that message. I say this and I believe it – you have to fare well on welfare to be able to say farewell to welfare2 . Welfare has to be a springboard, not concrete boots.
All this rhetoric of springboards and self-belief dovetails nicely with a massive assault on the working class, at a time when the unemployed and homeless are faced with increasing punishment. Single homelessness services in England have seen more than a quarter of their funding cut since the last election. The DWP plan to make it possible to sanction the Housing Benefit of part-time workers who aren't thought to be working hard enough, and they're now talking about stripping benefits from people suffering from anxiety and depression who aren't seen to be working hard enough to get better.
And if you do find yourself rough sleeping, you might have to get used to having your sleeping bags and blankets confiscated by the police, being moved on at all hours so streets can be sprayed down, perhaps being arrested in Camden only to be dropped off up the road in Islington3 . You might find bins a more welcoming environment than the growing prevalence of hostile architecture in public spaces.
Like that bit in Batman
But if you were to ask The Big Issue, this is probably all for the best: to discourage homelessness, to give people the motivation they really need to work themselves out of poverty. There's no attack on the poor, just lots of lazy poor people.
Bird's “concrete boots” of welfare are the safety net that holds people back, like the enabling friends and family that prevent a 12-stepper from hitting rock bottom and finally having the impetus to change things for themselves. You see this argument trotted out by fuckwits who resent foodbanks all the time – people shouldn't be helped when in need, they should be left to their own devices, it's for the best. Only when the rope is gone and it's do or die have you got the strength to overcome adversity and claw your way out of the pit...
Isn't the Big Society basically Kropotkin though?
Although it's slipped off the agenda of mainstream politics – as no one seems to really give a shit any more – the Big Society was the fluffy side of austerity. Instead of the state doing everything, community spirit would win out and people would volunteer and socially enterprise away all these problems (charities would pick up the slack, it's not the government's problem any more). Important distinctions between the Big Society and mutual aid have been drawn out elsewhere by Joseph Kay: suffice to say that attacks on the working class to further the interests of capital, even with Duncan Smith weeping over Glasgow and how poor everyone is, and cuts to welfare provision are not and never will be our class acting for itself.
As a libertarian communist I'm not trying to counter Bird and Duncan Smith's dewy eyed vision of capitalist utopia by arguing that the State needs to provide everything for us. But we mustn't confuse the state rolling back provisions for vulnerable people as some kind of helpful nudge towards mutual aid – it is an attack on our entire class. Things do not need to get worse to get better4 – things already are worse and further attacks aren't gonna make that better.