I find certain things insidious about life in ‘my’ home country. I came through Heathrow the other day to see a notice by the UK Border Agency telling me that it is illegal to knowingly provide any kind of support to a refugee who has not claimed asylum. Thanks. That’s a nice welcome. Fuck you too. But much more insidious than this, because it permeates everyday life so much more subtly, is noticing that nearly everyone has what I call an Inner Thatcher.
Perhaps people always thought things like ‘I shouldn’t need to depend on anyone else’ and that accounts for Thatcher’s success, or perhaps the propaganda put out by governments and the ideologists who have defend poor weak multi-national corporations since the 1980s has really paid off. Whatever the causes, the ideologies of Thatcher and New Labour are deeply embedded in everyday thinking – to the point that we are often loyal even to the parts of the ideologies that make no sense or cause inner conflicts that would make a committed Communist in the Chinese government blush.
Our Inner Thatcher doesn’t really like welfare for example, meaning that if we have to take benefits many of us do so reluctantly, perhaps making excuses to our friends. “Yeah, I am claiming benefits. I put if off as long as I could because I don’t like taking money from the government unless I have to, but I’m hoping to get a job handing out catalogues in Tesco soon.” I saw that job being performed in Tesco by a middle-aged man today, which is why I thought of it. I’d rather be on the dole and I don’t mind who knows it.
Everyone should stand on their own two feet, says our Inner Thatcher, even if they don’t have two feet. If I can’t do it that signifies a failure on my part. As for those people who live on welfare their whole lives, they are morally corrupt because they refuse to contribute to society. If they cannot save themselves they should be rescued from their fallen state by having their benefits removed.
It seems intuitive to say ‘People shouldn’t depend on state handouts’. Why? It’s just obviously a bad thing, says our Inner Thatcher. And yet people keep having to say it. Over and over again. I feel like anything that has to be repeated so often must be a bit suspect. Things that really are so instinctively true don’t need to be said very much. I’m going to muse upon the righteous preaching of the moral duty to do salaried work in another post. In this one I want to think about the idea that we should stand on our own two feet.
My main problem with the idea is that it’s flat out raving gibberish. As propaganda it’s so ridiculous that it’s the kind of thing you might expect Colonel Gadaffi to come out with on one of his more batshit mental days, except that because so many people say it so often we don’t notice. Unfortunately it doesn’t really square with how any human society has ever worked. It doesn’t square with tribal society, or family-oriented society, or any social setup you care to name. The very idea of society admits that we are dependent on each other. And that is true of our society too. We can’t really get by alone. We need other people. So when we say everyone should stand on their own two feet, which animal are we talking about? Not the human animal. You could probably point to a few people in all of history who have actually done that, living in caves alone and eating berries. Screw berries I say. I want a cooperative society with chocolate cheesecake. I’m not interested in standing on my own two feet.
Apart from the idea being patently nonsense, it is worth asking in what way exactly we are asked to stand on our own two feet. How does our society really work? Is it largely geared towards people standing on their own two feet? Quite the opposite I think: it removes from us much of what other people would consider ordinary life from an early age. Our food is made elsewhere by other people, our popular culture is produced by other people, our infrastructure is designed and created by professionals, our education is still organised in an essentially authoritarian centralised way, our government is in the hands of a privileged professional class, our production in the hands of unaccountable and undemocratic organisations.
Life is created by other people. That is the world we live in. So what are Inner Thatcher is really saying, if it were more honest, is: having removed your ability to think and act to create your own world, you must now play a particular role in this society (that you did not create) in order to provide the input that is required of you (by the forces beyond your control). It’s not quite the same as standing on your own two feet is it? Should we really make moral judgements on people who accept the broader message of society – sit back and let the important people sort things out for you – and apply it across the board with admirable consistency, rather than making the particular exception they are told to make?
Perhaps, you might say, that when people say you should stand on your own two feet, what they mean is that you should work in order to offer something to society in equal exchange for what society provides to you. Okay, nice enough idea and maybe we should try it. But it is quite a radical proposal that would destroy the functioning of the capitalist system. It’s kind of a different debate. It also entirely ignores people’s differing needs.
In conclusion, are you worried about claiming welfare? Then kick your Inner Thatcher in her genitalia (whatever type you believe them to be) and then knee her in the face as she doubles over. No one stands on their own two feet, and now she isn’t either. It probably broke some knightly rule but then the woman never exactly fought fair herself.
I think the government would hate it if anyone did manage without them. If anything about claiming welfare bothers you, it shouldn’t be the measly amount of resources you are handed, but the fact that you may be handed it as a bribe to make you forget that other people are managing your life. To make you forget, in fact, that you live in a society that denies you not exactly the chance to stand on your own two feet (which doesn’t happen) but does deny you, through its endless managerial mechanisms, the chance to stand together voluntarily with other people to create a life you can have some sort of control over.