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Fear, Hate and Greed

Capitalism is riddled with fear. Fear of its ever present wars. Fear of crime and criminals. Fear of being alone. Fear of being consumed by personal debt. The divisive fear of immigrants. And the fear common to all who are compelled to work for wages – the fear of unemployment.

Fear and hate are frequent bedfellows and Josef Goebbels, the master of Nazi state propaganda, knew exactly where to exploit those emotions when he affirmed: ‘Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play’. Where state benefits are concerned the media has peddled hate to the fearful – pounding the keyboard with glee. Cutting back on benefits when capitalism is in crisis is nothing new. During capitalism’s last depression those workers who had paid into the scheme received the dole for 15 weeks. The National Government, another coalition, cut the benefits of those on the scheme who were unemployed by 10 percent leaving them to rot alongside the other millions relying on poor law relief. In August of 1931 means testing the unemployed was implemented. Underpinning the poor laws and its sibling, the dole, are the deeply entrenched ruling class ideas of making claiming benefits so, ‘unpleasant that, people would not claim it, stigmatising relief so that it became an object of wholesome horror’ (wikipedia.org). Governments, whether claiming to be left, right or centre have been cutting benefits since the post-war boom of the 1970’s ended. And the reason why? Because they are a charge on profits, and thus detrimental to the real orchestrators of the tune and the owners of the keyboard – the capitalist class.

Handouts and handouts

The words benefits and scrounger have become conjoined. Goebbels would have been proud of the media hacks who have slavishly followed his guidelines: ‘The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly – it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over’. Thus the fearful have been given their slogan and its corollary is revealed in, ‘a YouGov survey which shows: Up to 212,000 have been physically attacked because they’re on benefits’ (mirror.co.uk, 8 September).

Benefits, dole, and handouts are what is made available to the unemployed, and those surviving on low wages. Subsidies, funding and support are invested by the state in corporations. A report written for the TUC entitled ‘The Great Train Robbery’ showed, amongst other things, that the, ‘train operating companies are entirely reliant upon public subsidies to run services. The top five recipients alone received almost £3bn in taxpayer support between 2007 and 2011. This allowed them to make operating profits of £504m - over 90 per cent (£466m) of which was paid to shareholders’ (tuc.org.uk, 5 June 2013). Publicfinance.co.uk can report that the total government subsidy to the railway businesses now stands at £4bn per year (16 April). With just a small slice of the subsidy benefitting ‘a top executive from Network Rail who will become head of construction. . . on an annual salary of £750,000, making him one of the country’s best paid public servants’ (ft.com, 17 January).

‘The private finance initiative (PFI) is a way of creating public–private partnerships (PPPs) by funding public infrastructure projects with private capital’ (wikipedia.org). Benefitting from this is a clique of banks, builders and service providers who build, and sometimes run, schools, hospitals and related public projects. And the benefits to the clique: state payouts over a 20 or 30 year period. However, ‘PFI has been controversial in the UK; though the National Audit Office felt in 2003 that it provided good value for money overall’ (wikipedia.org). Not so thought the disenchanted Treasury Secretary Vince Cable six years later: ‘The whole thing has become terrible, opaque and dishonest and it's a way of hiding obligations. . . PFI has now largely broken down and we are in the ludicrous situation where the government is having to provide the funds for the private finance initiative’ (bbc.co.uk, 3 March). And the funds continue to flow to those that benefit: ‘As of 2013, it was forecast that 725 PFI contracts for public facilities across the UK, with a total capital value of £54bn, will cost the Exchequer more than £300bn by the time they are paid off’ (newstatesman.com, 20 February).

Mindfulmoney.co.uk’s headline asked the question, ‘What is the cost to the UK taxpayer of supporting our banks’? It answered itself by referring to The National Audit Office’s estimate: ‘it peaked according to the NAO at £1.162 trillion’ (17 July, 2013). Support? Obviously, this isn’t the same as Income Support, which currently is awarded, after means testing, to a couple aged over 18 at £113.70p per week. Some commentators are more impolite and call it a bail-out. One of the main beneficiaries in the UK was the Royal Bank of Scotland which is labelled by the media as ‘our bank’. ‘We’ own 82 per cent of it after the state invested £37 billion of its funds in October 2008. But, dear oh dear, ‘our’ investment has lost a few quid even after more funds were invested. That scourge of the benefits scroungers The Daily Mail could run the headline, ‘RBS has lost all the £46bn pumped in by the taxpayer’. The editor got out his calculator to let his fretful readers know that, ‘In total, the lender has since paid out £4.6 billion in bonuses – £1 billion for every £10 billion it has lost’. Also included in the £46 billion was, ‘a £3.8bn bill for customer mis-selling’ (27 February). Note the word bill. That couldn’t be a fine like those slapped on a benefit scrounger and imposed by the state law courts could it?

Swindlers and swindlers

Such as the case against, ‘ a mother of three who was jailed for five months for swindling more than £70,000 in benefits… DWP Minister Lord Freud said: In addition to the sentence imposed by the court, the department always seeks to recover the benefits falsely obtained, to ensure that fraudsters do not benefit financially from their criminal activities’ (Bristol Post, 6 June 2011). Or a man who gained notoriety via the BBC news site for ‘falsely claiming £28,332 in disability benefits. . . Judge Recorder Richard Booth said the offences were disgraceful and so serious that a prison sentence was necessary (3 November). Or, ‘a man who stole to eat after his benefits were stopped. . .admitting stealing three packets of casserole steak. . . after changes to his benefits left him hungry. . .he pleaded guilty to stealing the food, worth £12.60, and was sentenced to six weeks in prison (The Northern Echo, 22 October).

RT.com on the 28 October reported on a speech by the BoE Deputy Governor, Nemet Minouche Shafik who, ‘denounced the actions of UK traders in foreign exchange, currencies and bonds markets, warning financial misconduct in these sectors goes well beyond a few rogue financiers. . . the BoE’s deputy governor said the tired argument that financial misconduct relates to the behaviour of a ‘few bad apples’ is no longer credible. Shafik suggested UK financial regulation lacks efficacy and robustness, and a regulatory overhaul is needed to fix the barrel and to get rid of the bad apples’. This statement acts as a sop to a very long list of so-called financial misconducts amongst an elite that has made the news, albeit unsensationally, since 2008. Misconduct such as the extremely beneficial practice amongst banks of mortgage selling about which Dean Baker, economist and director of the Centre for Economic & Policy Research said, ‘Knowingly packaging and selling fraudulent mortgages is fraud. It is a serious crime that could be punished by years in jail’ – However – ‘No senior bank executive has faced criminal charges following the mortgage crisis’. William D. Cohan, a former senior mergers and acquisitions banker, wrote in the New York Times that ‘not only has the government barely punished those on the hook for Wall Street crimes, the Justice Department has also offered ‘sanitized’ versions of events that led up to the crimes in its accounts given to the public following investigations (rt.com, 22 August). So Nemet, looks like there might be a few barriers in place when it comes to fixing the barrel. Or maybe that’s just on Wall Street?

It’s easy under capitalism, given all of its contradictions, to see the whole thing as some sort of lunatic asylum. But a better comparison is a prison run by the most proficient thieves. The media is utilised like the pickpocket that directs your attention elsewhere whilst another robs you. One of the things that is stolen is your capacity to think like a human being. Fear, hate and greed permeate the prison walls. But the prison isn’t escape-proof. All it takes to get out is to decide that is what you want to do, and join with others working to bring down the prison walls.

ANDY MATTHEWS