A Helot Society 307


So we are back with a vengeance to notions of the undeserving poor. Electronic cards are to ensure that the poor can only spend their benefits on basic necessities like food and clothing, and not on a lifestyle of alcohol and illegal drugs.

Having lived a rather spectacular life encompassing both ends of the social spectrum, I can state with utter conviction that consumption of illegal pleasure-giving stimulants is far higher among the very wealthy than among the very poor. The notion that only the rich should be allowed to have any enjoyment in life is deeply offensive. It is fine for the Bullingdon Club to get plastered on Krug and cocaine and smash up restaurants. That is all jolly japes and high spirits. For a desperate man to seek solace in four cans of Tennant’s strongest or a bottle of Buckfast is however a dreadful sin and sign of social irresponsibility.

The high streets of our poorest towns are strewn with betting shops, bargain booze outlets, pawnbrokers and payday lenders. For anybody to believe that state compulsion of the patrons is the answer to the problem is the ultimate counsel of despair. Forget giving people a better hope, a greater chance, more socially useful pleasures. Just ban the little solace they have now. We have a government which holds a large section of the population in contempt; which cannot imagine that given a different birth, these people might have been sitting next to them in the Bullingdon Club; in short, which has no notion whatsoever of human dignity.

This latest move against benefits claimants is consistent with the entire development of the modern British economy. High wage economies generate a self-sustaining high domestic demand which keeps the economy growing. Our three main political parties postulate a low wage economy, with a minimum wage below the level which can sustain a family. The low wage economy is defended as a guarantee of strong international competitiveness and thus export performance. In fact Britain’s low wage model is entirely different, and the vast majority of those on low wages have no relation to exports. What Britain has developed is a model where a thin layer at the top are on extremely high remuneration. This of course includes bankers and the financial services industry, but also through the cult of managerialism, CEOs and directors have vastly increased their remuneration. For the multiple between the highest and lowest paid in a company to be 70 – the cleaner on 15,000, the core level majority on 20,000 and the CEO on 3,000,000- is now absolutely routine.

Even the public sector is ruled by this pretence that executive work is harder, more stressful, more uniquely difficult than core work. Well, I have been an Ambassador and a barman, and I can tell you which was hardest work. University vice chancellors are on over 300,000. Local councils regularly have a score of people on over 100,000.

We have no media willing to take on the triumph of greed. The most “left wing” of British newspapers, the Guardian, pays its editor total remuneration of over half a million per year and “star” columnists 300,000, while exploiting interns and junior staff, and squandering 35 million pounds a year of C P Scott’s great endowment in losses – straight into its senior staff’s pockets.

Britain has developed a new kind of low wage economy – one where the bulk of those on low wages work to provide services to those on very, very high remuneration. In a sense it is very old. We have become a helot society. It should be stressed that low wage is a deliberate policy. There is absolutely no reason why those in work could not be paid more. The economy would not crash. In Norway the median wage of the lowest 10 percentile is over 20,000 pounds, while the multiple between the lowest ten percentile and the top ten percentile is less than one third what it is in Britain. The UK’s astonishing and accelerating wealth gap is a result of deliberate ideological policy, founded on a notion that those at the top are possessed of rare and extraordinary abilities – whereas in truth, in the UK more than anywhere, their main achievement was usually to be born into the right family.

The concomitant of that worship of the rich is the belief that money measures worth; that if you have a low income then you are scum. That is the attitude that underlies these benefit smart cards. It is truly disgusting.


307 thoughts on “A Helot Society

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  • glenn_uk

    Frazer: I have to agree with you. Taking contributions intended for the very poorest people, relying on the charity of decent, honest people, and then throwing it at fat-cat CEOs, giving them world-class salaries, luxury penthouse apartments in expensive areas of the capital city, chauffeur-driven limos, golden handshakes and executive leaving packages, swanky offices and agreeable lunches at fine hotels. Oh, the burden of command.

    Not to mention a shedful of hush-money on the way out, if they really screw things up. That’s what happened in the last organisation I did a fair bit of work for (and contributed a fair amount of cash, not just time), with the end pay-off being around £690,000 as a reward for incompetence right at the top.

    Unbelievable.

  • technicolour

    This contribution (from an Avaaz petition to Ian Duncan Smith) is so measured that it’s painful:

    Benefit claimants deserve to live in peace and dignity, not to be treated like criminals or naughty children.

    Why is this important?

    While I understand your intention to curb spending on alcohol, drugs, tobacco and gambling, it is wrong to tar all benefit claimants with the same brush.

    Not allowing us to have any cash at all is an unwise and unworkable idea, because some things do require cash, e.g. travelling on the bus, buying fresh vegetables and fruit from a farmer’s market, using vending machines, using a trolley at the supermarket, buying second-hand clothes from a car boot sale.

    If, for instance, you were to tell a person who has worked all of their life, but has recently become unemployed through no fault of their own (e.g. redundancy), that they can’t even buy a magazine or go for a coffee with a friend is ridiculous, and being told what to do like a naughty child would be degrading. It would also be ridiculous, and degrading, for them to be dictated to by the government and be told “You can’t have any cash, you can only spend money in these shops, you can have this but you can’t have that, because we say so.”

  • Peacewisher

    @Frazer: I agree with you 100% about “admin” costs for charities. So much so that I generally won’t contribute… just to those where all the money goes in aid. How did this sad state of affairs come about?

  • glenn_uk

    Peacewisher: With all the money flowing to them, big charities had to start being “serious”, and this means competing with other companies with similar cash-flow, in order to get the executives consistent with an X hundred million pound cash-flow.

    In this same line of thinking, all the rest of the unfortunate trappings of executive sustainance must be accomodated – thus the limos, penthouse flat, high-rise offices in the capital and so on.

    This is capitalism. Charity is an industry like any other – and a pretty damned profitable one at that, since no tax is owed on their activity. But philanthopy it ain’t. That is a concept dead and buried, ever since the sainted Thatcher and Ronnie explained that Greed Is God. I mean, Good.

  • Muscleguy

    @Abbe Rene

    And what is an addict to do if denied cash to feed their habit? They resort to crime, or in the case of addicts on welfare, more crime as you cannot feed an addiction on ESA.

  • N_

    Excellent article. But more accurate terms for the “top ten percentile” and the “lowest ten percentile” are the 10th and 90th percentiles.

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