Attending the Job Centre once a week was always a curious ritual. I recall long waits, being handed lots of bits of paper, stares from bored children and G4S security guards performing a carceral pirouette or two.
All of this strangeness, bordering on the obscene (why force people to bring children to such a place?) was of course laid out for us in order to obscure the most obvious fact about why everyone was there. We were there to collect money because we were broke and had thus fallen from the grace of employment.
Traditional British coyness about money has always been a thinly veiled reminder of our attachment to class. In an economy like ours which extracts a ‘poverty premium’ from those on low or precarious incomes, the common truth of being broke, or on the constant verge of it, should be neither surprising nor secret.
But if we were instead better able to name such basic facts about ourselves, the aura of shame that accompanies poverty in Britain would start to fall apart. The bizarre rigmarole of the Job Centre would be seen for the exercise in quiet humiliation that it so obviously is.
The most striking part of the ritual involved, finally, a chat about your job search with someone who was almost always utterly detached from their own work. Maybe this was designed as some kind of perverse incentive – you sit there thinking ‘if this person can get a job there’s hope for us all.
It’s genuinely difficult to keep track of the number of jobs I had in my twenties, let alone the hundreds that I applied for. Sitting across from a Job Centre Advisor, none of this seemed to matter. Instead, the desk in between becomes a kind of chasm, marked by the only fact that really matters in such places: one of us has an employer and the other doesn’t. I remember lots of sighs and vacant stares.
Any nuance, any useful sleight of hand or compassionate capacity is squeezed out from that moment of contact with the state. Many good people, surely, work in such places, but they can’t escape the web of cruelty that is woven into the design of the system. I always expected I’d be back at some point: precarious work becomes a kind of quantitative game, gaps on CVs became inevitable but still have to be accounted for: the prize of work that was stable and meaningful became ever more distant. They don’t teach this kind of ducking and diving anywhere that I know of.
But one of the recurrent truths revealed by having so many jobs is that of misemployment. We will all, at some point, work with people who hold down the wrong jobs for years, who are comically and self-consciously inept, who lack any of the innate qualities a certain type of work might require.
It says a great deal about the contemporary state of Britain that it is led by several definitive examples of the country’s legion misemployed. Several members of the current cabinet, including the Prime Minister, are inept to the point of absurdity and self-consciously so. But, like the DWP or ATOS employees who man the frontlines of a deliberately dysfunctional legacy welfare state, this is not coincidence. It is instead the performance of a complicit smugness; designed to disempower others.
It is impossible, perhaps, for those who have only ever known work as a fulfilling calling or vocation to understand it as any other than an entirely edifying and elevating thing.
But unlike her boss, the cleaner who goes to work in Number 10 cannot forego hard graft by offering up an impish grin and a reference to Cicero instead. Britain’s obsession with the failings of those who earn the least is part of that other truth that goes unspoken – the more you earn, the higher your status within any organisation, the easier it is to shirk and skive.
Such a breezy approach to status informs the great dream of English conservatism; to be left alone in the Home Counties. This has informed the basis of UK social policy from the reform of the Poor Laws to the present day. The whole point was to deter those who might need to seek assistance with the threat of the workhouse and to restrict the movements of those with nothing.
But the triumphant re-emergence of Victorian morality around the provision of welfare support in the form of Universal Credit, really ought to shame us all
The dark ancestor of this system can be seen in the entirely punitive step of withdrawing the £20 uplift from the Universal Credit allowance. We have just emerged from the greatest experiment in the preservation of human life: but this must be scored out in case the sin of idleness returns.
Behind such policies sits the cloying moralism of a party politics that competes for the mantle of the ‘party of work’; an equally archaic notion. In this country, reverence for paid employment and wage-labour as an inherent social good ought to have been junked with the factories that once sustained it.
This extremely narrow concept of work as employment obscures the myriad, rich and immensely tough work of social reproduction: precisely the skills that we need to sustain an ageing society on an increasingly unstable planet.
Perhaps liberating the DWP adviser is just as urgent as liberating the claimant. These people ought to be engaged in a remarkable human enterprise –a great web of mutual aid and human solidarity. But the Job Centre remains a site where the basic imperative of our current system is repeated over and over again: instilling shame in case you feel entitled. The possibility that you might righteously make a claim as a member of society, in a country still run on the basis of birthright, must still be stamped out at all costs.
The hunger that will be created when the uplift is removed at the end of the month is simply an exercise in demonstrating these awful truths. The pandemic terrified us all perhaps, but it also demonstrated the innate capacity of a virus to act as a leveller and revealed all of the ‘hidden’ forms of work that we refuse to value. This cut is the first major backlash against that moment of mass solidarity. It represents the re-sharpening of hunger as a political weapon and the reiteration of cruelty as virtue. But it cannot succeed in erasing the knowledge and memory of the great collective work to preserve life we have just lived through.