Working tax credits: the real questions, some real answers

What is ‘hegemonic power’? One central element of hegemonic power is the power to make the root (systemic) causes of our problems invisible and largely unspeakable and unthinkable. Instead, all our debates are over ways to remedy or improve the symptoms of the disease (or even why the painful symptoms are good for us) rather than the disease itself.
An example of this from the UK is the current furore over tax credits. The Conservative government is removing working tax credits (though before the election it promised not to). These are state payments that supplement workers’ wages. Their removal will hurt very many poor people indeed. As this article from today’s Guardian shows, the government crows about the low unemployment rate, but says nothing or very little about the paltry sub-poverty wages so many of us get for that employment.

What are virtually absent from the debate are the questions any curious child would surely ask. These are:
(Q1) ‘Why do the companies we work for pay us so little money that we can’t afford the basic things to live a dignified life?’

(Q2) ‘If they pay us so little why do we have to work for them?’

(Q3) ‘Why should the state supplement their low wages with tax credits which is effectively payments from general taxation, which, in turn, is largely contributed to by working people through their work and consumption?

(Q4) ‘Can’t we create an economic system where everyone gets a decent human life? And if that does involve doing monotonous or stressful work can’t we make sure that those who do it get properly rewarded for it?’

Now, I would be surprised if you’ve never, ever asked those questions or similar ones to yourself before. The fact that you never hear them asked publicly or on your TV screens has probably made you think that they are stupid or naive, fantastical questions. They are not! They are intelligent, actually common-sensical, questions that need to be asked and deserved to be answered. These questions are the clothes that the Emperor doesn’t wear!

I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, but I think I have good ones and they all pretty much come from reading Karl Marx and Marxist literature. In short, my answers would be:

(1) Cos profit (what Marxists call ‘surplus value’) comes from our labour. This makes the class conflict, and the resulting balance of power, between workers and capitalists the fundamental political condition shaping capitalist societies. Today, that balance of power is very firmly skewed towards the capitalist class. They need to pay us what it takes for us to keep ourselves alive so that they still have a workforce, but beyond that the capitalist class will seek to minimize labour costs to maximize surplus value. But, it’s not just about economics. Work is political, capital is a social relation, and ‘the economy’ is not a force of nature. So, it’s not just about minimizing labour costs to maximize surplus-value. More fundamentally, it’s about repressing workers and our collective organizational power to ensure that the system continues. Poverty, debt, social atomization, and media BS are the main weapons here to keep us down, disillusioned, and divided. And these are weapons, and there are casualties (truth being the first) in this class war.

(2) Cos we have to work. This is what Marx called the ‘double freedom’ in capitalist society. We have the freedom to choose to work (and, to an increasingly limited extent, choose which work we do) and the freedom to choose to starve. We have to work and this makes us working class essentially. If all we have to sell is our labour-power we are working class. We are working class because many years ago, we were kicked off our land – the land that gave us a choice between subsistence and wage-labour – and forced into the towns and cities. Think you’re free? Stopping doing the job you hate...

(3) You’re right! The state shouldn’t do this. It shouldn’t have to do this. We have the collective, organisational potential to demand that our companies pay proper wages and give us far more security and safety in our jobs. Recent moves in this direction have come from popular action. But that will both hit already flagging corporate profits and turn the balance of political power towards us. So, that must be stopped at all costs.

(4) Yes! We can! I think capitalism is absolutely dying now. It can’t revive its profitability. Capital went global and financial in an attempt to crush our political power and revive its profitability. It largely succeeded (temporarily) in the first aim and only partially and temporarily succeeded in the second. Now, through money-printing, asset-inflation, austerity and debt, the capitalist class tries again to reboot the system, but can’t. At the same time, we now have the technology that enables us to share for free, co-operate rather than compete, do far, far less crappy work, and build a networked rather than hierarchical society all based on a commodity, information, that is infinitely abundant and so is incompatible with a market economy unless it’s a forced monopoly/oligopoly that represses the free exchange of information and ideas. See Paul Mason’s brilliant new book PostCapitalism on this. So, what those who dismiss exciting new political developments in the UK and many places beyond don’t see is that the world is already changing. We can totally create a new society based on a different, social value system, radically democratic in its configuration, and compatible with individual freedom, social peace, and environmental harmony. I really do think this it’s coming already.

If you’re sat there reading this stressed out by a job you hate or by the awful, endless pursuit of just trying to get a job you’ll hate, anxious about the mortgage or rental payments you struggle to make, or the consumer or student debt you’ll never ever pay back, you might be saying ‘Get real! Talk is cheap!’ and you’d be right! Talk is cheap. That’s why we still have capitalism, patriarchy, structural racism and other forms of intolerable injustice and oppression. But, it’s equally true to say the only way we begin to rid ourselves of these diseases is not bickering about the symptoms, but to see the root causes. And if it’s an economic or political issue, be it tax credits, the housing crisis, the privatisation of the NHS, or austerity, the symptoms differ, but the disease is the same – capitalism: the cancer on our body politic. When we think we might be sick we need that initial bravery to recognise the fact and to take ourselves off to the doctor. Well, I guess here I am that doctor and here’s the diagnosis. The only difference is that the disease is collective and the treatment is the responsiblity of all. Feel free to get a second opinion, but if you’re convinced then please get involved in the collective remedy. Though full recovery will take time, voicing these questions, and getting involved will help you feel loads better right away! Why? Because what you’ll feel is your own power and once that’s turned on it won’t turn off! Go for it!

  2 comments for “Working tax credits: the real questions, some real answers

  1. October 22, 2015 at 11:18 am

    How does this alternative non-market economy operate? If shared information is free how do individuals support themselves? I can’t read PostCapitalism at the moment- I have three essays to write!

    • October 22, 2015 at 11:59 am

      Hi Alison,

      Thanks for responding. So, for me, it functions because we all simply get the things we need – housing, food, energy, and, most crucially,way more time – free. We undeniably have the technology to do this. So, it’s only a political question. Since it’s a political question and I’m a democrat and an individual of limited vision, I can’t give you the blueprint. Indeed, I’d say there is no blueprint. It will emerge more spontaneously. So, for example, we would have to decide collectively what work remained necessary for humans to do and how we were to distribute and compensate/reward that work. I would think there was a very decentralised and localised principle driving this. Some things would remain far more sensible to do on regional, national, even international scales, but most things would be more sensible eocnomically, socially, and ecologically to do on a city, town, even village scale.

      At the moment we have the worst possible combination. Some forms of information or knowledge/culture-creation we are right to feel bad about sharing because it does harm the livelihoods of others e.g. musicians or filmmakers. However, the answer isn’t to establish monopolies and restrict and commoditize their products. The answer is to establish an alternative society based on an alternative definition of value that allows anyone and everyone to pursue their cultural or scientific passions freely and to share them and collaborate with everyone too, safe in the knowledge that they have a warm house and food in their bellies.

      The movement behind the universal/unconditional basic income is exciting in this regard. It is at its best truly radical because it severs the link between work and income. But it’s a long-standing idea, particularly in anarchist circles. I just finished reading Bertrand Russell’s ‘Proposed Roads to Freedom’ written 100 years ago in which he advocates what he calls the ‘vagabond’s wage’.

      Also, what Paul Mason shows most excitingly is that this alternative non-market way of producing and sharing is already here and advancing rapidly – open source, creative commons, Wikipedia, perhaps the sharing economy, it’s all growing exponentially. Its force and power is so powerful that it takes and will take increasing political, legal, economic repression to contain it. Just look at the monopolies we have and TTIP as examples here.

      I’m sorry to hear about the essays! I’ve been there and, in a sense, remain there still! Good luck with those.

      Thanks for reading my blog and commenting!
      Best wishes

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