Monday 1 April 2013

Scrounger narratives explained

If you haven't noticed the propaganda war being waged against the unemployed by the government and the right-wing press you must have been living in a vacuum. 

To anyone with the slightest clue about what mass unemployment is, the sound of government ministers and the baying right-wing press deriding the unemployed as "idle", "lazy", "skivers", "dossers" and "scroungers" is revolting. For the vast majority of people suffering worklessness, unemployment is not a "lifestyle choice" as the right-wing crowd would have us believe, it is the result of failed (or even deliberately destructive) macroeconomic policies.

Firstly I'll give a quick explanation of what I mean by the term justification narrative.

Put simply a justification narrative is a simplistic propaganda story aimed at the creation of political memes; little "soundbytes" of propaganda that allow the reactionary or cognitively impaired or downright stupid individual to believe that they have an expert understanding of political and economic issues because they have a collection of simplistic narratives and idioms to explain away complex political and economic phenomena. (I've written an article defining justification narratives in greater detail which can be found here).

The Tories love to create the justification narrative that the unemployed are largely idle and feckless layabouts "sponging" off the hard working people of the UK. It helps them to divide society by stoking resentment amongst working people, that those without work are living "a life of luxury" on benefits. This is a classic example of a political distraction technique. Those responsible for the economic meltdown and the ongoing unemployment crisis are the corrupt self-serving politicians, the reckless bankers, the something-for-nothing property speculators and the corporate fatcats. Yet the Tories and the right wing press would have us believe that the crisis was caused by the poorest people in society. They are directing us to blame the victims of the crisis rather than the perpetrators. They are directing us to blame the symptoms rather than the disease.

Neoliberal financial sector deregulations and reckless financial sector activity caused the economic crisis, but the Tories and the right-wing press believe that the public really are gullible enough to blame the poorest people in society, many of whom have lost everything they valued (their job, their income, their home, their self-esteem, their family) and are now surviving on subsistence welfare payments.

The Tories and their cheerleaders in the right-wing press really believe that they can easily con us into blaming the victims, rather than blaming those who made themselves fat with their reckless property speculation, dodgy expenses claims, corporate kickbacks, brazen profiteering, corruption, derivatives gambling, insider trading, tax-dodging, money laundering and Libor rigging.

Under the coalition government the corporations and millionaires who created the crisis have received huge tax cuts, whilst the poor and disabled have been abused as "feckless scroungers".

The idea of the scrounger narrative is to create a simplistic justification narrative that the unemployed are worthless scroungers, in order to justify ideological attacks on the welfare state. The most effective justification narratives rely on stoking emotional responses, and one of the most powerful is the sense of injustice. The emotional response is important because people tend to allow their anger to override their critical faculties when they are confronted with a perceived injustice. 

The injustice that they are presented with in this case is : "Why should you have to work hard for what you've got, whist those on benefits don't?". This kind of narrative is often backed up with extreme individual cases, cherry-picked statistics or outright lies.

An example of how terribly misinformed the public has become about welfare issues is that on average, the public estimate the amount of fraud in the benefits system to be £24 in every £100, when the real figure from the government (hidden on page 36 of this government report) is just 70p in every £100 of benefits spending. This means that, thanks to the barrage of 
scrounger narratives from the government, and in the pages of the right-wing press, the public tend to over-estimate the level of benefit fraud by a mind-boggling factor of 34!

Once the reactionary thinker has had their head filled with 
scrounger narratives and falsified claims, they then go around spreading scrounger narratives of their own, combining the misleading and inaccurate bile that they've read in the right wing press or heard from a Tory spokesperson, with their own anecdotal evidence. People don't seem to realise that by spreading these anti-unemployed scrounger narratives they are actively fighting the Tory party propaganda war them.

Perhaps the most notable thing about this right-wing anti-unemployed rhetoric is the fact that it so transparently inaccurate. Looking to the brazenly manipulated headline unemployment statistics for answers is notoriously naive, given that over the course of decades successive governments have found countless new ways to rig the headline unemployment figures downwards. However, clear indicators can be found that the UK is undergoing a mass unemployment crisis in the long-term and youth unemployment statistics. 

Since the Tory led coalition came to power in 2010, long-term unemployment rose by 115,000 for those out of work for longer than one year, and by 167,000 (+58.8%) for those out of work for longer than two years.

 The general level of youth unemployment has rose by 87,000. The long-term youth unemployment figures are even worse. 18-24 year olds out of work for longer than a year rose by 102,000 to 257,000 (+65.8%) and those out of work for two years or more has risen from 67,000 to 107,000 (+59.7%). (figures calculated from the June 2010 & March 2013 ONS Labour Market Statistics).

When we consider these statistics it is important to remember that the tens of thousands of people who have been coerced onto Iain Duncan Smith's unlawful Labour party approved Workfare schemes are misleadingly excluded from the calculations, and that DWP management have been setting secretive targets to strip people of their benefits (the league tables of these benefits sanctions are here).

It would be shocking enough that long-term unemployment and long-term youth unemployment have skyrocketed by 60% in three years, even if the Tory government and DWP were not also engaged in such transparent efforts to manipulate the figures downwards. It's clear that the real scale of the problem is much worse than the manipulated official figures admit.

The fact that long-term and youth unemployment have skyrocketed under the Tory led coalition, despite their best efforts to "juke the stats" in their favour should be evidence that neither their economic policies, nor their welfare reform policies are working. They keep up the rhetoric of "ending benefits dependency", "making it pay to work", "strivers vs skivers", but the fact is, that the macroeconomic policies they are imposing on the nation are making the unemployment situation worse. If they define the long-term unemployed as "feckless scroungers" the number of "feckless scroungers" has risen by 60% since the Tories came to power!

The idea that such huge increases in long-term unemployment are due to hundreds of thousands of people suddenly deciding to put their feet up and claim benefits because they can't be arsed to work, and deciding to do so during the most prolonged financial crisis in living memory is lamentable gibberish. But yet, that's what the Tories would have you believe; that mass unemployment is caused by contagions of laziness, rather than by financial crises.

They want you to believe the outright lie that there are plenty of jobs out there, but that the unemployed are just too lazy to do them.

Perhaps the most brazen aspect to the Tory scrounger narrative technique is that it is used in conjunction with the "we must cut benefits to make work pay" narrative. Firstly, it must be pointed out that the most obvious way to make work pay, is to increase the National Minimum Wage to make it a living wage, not to slash subsistence benefits. However the most shocking aspect is the fact that the caricature of the feckless scrounger is being used to justify benefits cuts that actually have more impact upon the working poor. The benefits that the Tory government have cut in real terms include in-work benefits like Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, Housing Benefit, Child Benefit, Income Support, Council Tax Benefit, Maternity Pay, Paternity Pay and Statutory Sick Pay, all benefits claimed by the working poor.

The number of working families affected by these real terms benefits cuts is much larger than the number of unemployed people affected, yet thousands of tabloid thinking reactionaries can't be bothered to give a damn about the implications for the working poor. They're too busy celebrating the further impoverishment of the so called "scroungers" to care about the much greater number of working families taken out in the crossfire.

By using 
scrounger narratives and empty rhetoric to justify these attacks on the working poor, the Tories openly demonstrate that their claims that they are trying to "make work pay" are lies; just so much empty rhetoric that is directly contradicted by what they are actually doing. You don't "make work pay" by inflicting real terms cuts on the incomes of working people!

The Tories and the right-wing press really do believe that the British public are so gullible and reactionary that they can be tricked into supporting attacks on the working poor through the invocation of 
scrounger narratives and other pathetic propaganda techniques.

Judging by the sheer number of people who turn up on my Another Angry Voice facebook page to spew angry 
scrounger narratives of their own, perhaps the Tories and the right-wing press are right about the ease with which they can hoodwink the public?

Perhaps the working people of this country really are so credulous that they can be tricked, by the invocation of a few simplistic 
scrounger narratives, into actually fighting the Tory propaganda war against their own labour rights, social security entitlements and financial interests for them?

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