3: Now Charlie Swigs and Tony Spins . . .
Molly Scott Cato
How could a nation with such a radical tradition as ours have been brought so low? It was John Ball, a leading Lollard preacher and prime mover of the Peasants Revolt, who wrote ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentle- man?’ Yet here we sit, slumped on our Linda Barker sofas, a new one every year to keep up with furniture fashion, and working all the hours God sends to pay for them. Meanwhile the bulk of the value we generate through our work is creamed off to generate that infamous shareholder value.
The quotation is important because it indicates that it was in this country that radical voices were first raised against the unfair distribution of both work and money. We did not need Marx to produce his surplus value hypothesis. This understanding had already been around for 500 years by the time he produced Capital.
Never mind the addition of ‘New’ — it was ‘Labour’ that was always the problem. In the days of John Ball most people in this country were peasants. They owed some duty of labour to the local landowner, but this did not define them. They were able to grow food for their own needs (what is now termed ‘self-provisioning’) on their piece of land and raise a few pigs and chickens, grazing them on the common land which the community shared. This tradition ended with the Enclosures, when the landowners managed to force peasants from their land, replacing them with more lucrative sheep, thus also creating a labour-force for the newly industrializing cities.
The trouble with a Labour party, New or Old, is that it defines people in terms of their labour-power, accepting the stealing of their right to provide for themselves, and of the land which enabled them to do this. The Green Party challenges both those historical injustices. We would introduce a Citizens’ Income — a share of the national wealth for each person as of right, to allow them to meet their basic needs. This would cut the link between labour and survival which creates so much stress and anxiety.
We would also tackle the gross injustice of the distribution of land, 10 per cent of which still belongs to descendants of the Plantagenets as a result of the Norman land grab following 1066. The Green Party’s proposed Land Value Tax is initially intended as a replacement for Council Tax and will shift the balance of taxation away from income (the result of our labour) and towards assets. Because the tax will be due from all land, whether or not its present owners are using it productively, this will end the museumisation of the countryside and allow land to pass into the hands of those who will use it as Nature intended — for producing food.
Labour’s emphasis on Hard-Working Families is a clear attempt to cement the link between work and well-being. The message is that those who work hard deserve to provide for their children, and this work is defined within a labour market, so that mothers, the disabled and now the incapacitated are all required to labour if they are to be supported. The battle lines are drawn between ‘lazy’ Europeans, who still support a social contract where their right to support is due to them as citizens, and the industrious, morally superior Anglo-Saxons, who know they should work for their daily bread. Niall Ferguson, a prominent apologist for the new economic and political imperialism and Professor of History at Harvard, made just this case in a recent article in the Telegraph called ‘The atheist sloth ethic, or why Europeans don’t believe in work’. Ferguson makes a disturbing link between hard work and religiosity, but omits to draw attention to the more important point that workers in continental Europe continue to outstrip UK productivity rates.
We may also see a connection between this renewed emphasis on the moral need to work and the appalling news from the Pensions Commission that we may have to work five or more years longer than we had planned. Am I being too cynical in wondering whether we might find in The Peasants’ Revolt the beginnings of an explanation for the panic over the pensions crisis and the desperate attempts to force more and more people — mothers, the disabled, the incapacitated — back to work? The original cause of the Revolt was the huge loss of population following the Black Death some 30 years earlier. This caused major demographic changes and altered the balance of power between workers and those who exploited their labour, allowing labourers to negotiate effectively for higher rates of pay for the first time. Plummeting birth-rates across industrialized societies may have a similar effect over the next few decades.
So let us not be deluded by the narrow range of choice on offer from Adair Turner; as former head of the CBI it is clear which side of the debate he is coming from. We will not be forced to work longer hours to generate greater profits for shareholders. Instead we will demand our basic right to have our needs met and to have a fair share of our country’s wealth and the value of our work.
Molly Scott Cato