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Sunday 19 July 2020

The Nobility

Before we get into this I'd like to draw people's attention to the fact that:

1) The Black Lives Matter protests are still ongoing and will continue to do so until real results have been achieved that aren't simple corporate and governmental virtue signalling, and

2) Unmarked federal agents in military kit are literally snatching people off the streets in various places in the US with no justification and no guarantee of freedom or fair treatment.

Stay involved, stay informed.

Now, to business.

I'm going to open with this screenshot of Rishi Sunak, our Chancellor of the Exchequer, espousing some of his virtue.

Specifically I am going to point out this particular sentence.

And where's the harm in that, one might think? The nobility of work. Everyone loves a bit of hard work, right? It's noble to go in and put in your however many hours. You go in, you do your time, you shed your sweat, you get your pay, you go home, and you feel proud over nobly doing your duty.

Nobility. An interesting choice of words.

I've talked about work ethic before, and it relates to this - that there is a universally accepted ethically good attitude towards work, and how I am a bit of a hypocrite for having a work ethic but also having the thoughts we're going to discuss.

See, there's this... thing about work. As in both the concept of employment, and also the notion of undertaking physical labour. There's a thing about it being above reproach, about the notion of working being total and universal, and about how hard work is the be-all and end-all of human existence. It's a uniquely Conservative worldview.

Who here remembers this song from Dumbo?

Still not sold on how deeply this notion is embedded in our culture? How many stories do we get told by our older family members about how hard they used to have it, and how that was better for whatever reason? It's like the suffering brought about by worse conditions has a virtue applied to it. Imagine the attitudes of your older friends or relatives when they talk about people on benefits or receiving governmental help or charity, who haven't worked for it, who are expecting "something for nothing".

Ah but I get ahead of myself. First, let me delve back in time. WAY back.

Ever since we've had social groups and individuals in those social groups capable of performing different tasks, division of labour has existed. It's a very basic concept - someone has to go and stab the mammoth, someone has to stay home and watch the kids. The alternative is just not worth any numerical advantage it might offer, as any parent that has had to take their kids shopping when they're in a bad mood can tell you.

As social groups grew, as our tools got better, as we started to shift away from hunter-gatherer existence to arable and pastoral existence some 11,000 years ago, it became clear that less time needed to be spent stabbing the aforementioned mammoth. It took less effort to nurture the crops, guard them and prepare them for eating, than it did to go and bring the food home. So there was time to do other things. There was time for leisure, to have more children, to raise and teach them, to make things that weren't strictly needed for survival, such as art and music. We had, by dint of our growing brain pans and our tool use, earned free time.

We had also earned mercy. Margaret Mead - cultural anthropologist of renown - pointed out that, in her eyes, the beginning of actual civilization was a 15,000 year old human femur that had broken and healed. That broken femur was a concrete example of humans helping someone else without immediate reward, someone that couldn't care for themselves. This would have been even easier once crops became widespread. If one isn't constantly chasing one's next meal, one has time to recover from an injury that could easily prevent them from catching that meal and starving to death.

In truth, we owe as much of who we are as a species to the fact that we had time to NOT work for our survival than the things that we did TO survive.

And then along comes...

That's it, hierarchy. Or, specifically illustrated here, The Divine Right Of Kings.

The moment that we start having people in charge, people who lead and have others that follow - we see resource start to trickle upwards. The leader gets the biggest hut, in the most basic example - does he go out and get the mud and sticks himself? Probably not. Does he take from a mutually gathered pool of mud and sticks? Probably. Does that mean he gains more from the labours of others than they do? Definitely. (Is he definitely a he? You didn't even notice I was doing that, did you? Question everything, my friends!)

Humans have a base minimum resource need to exist. If you have eight humans, and one of them doesn't want to put in the work to meet that resource need, that human needs to convince the other seven that they need to do more than THEY need to as a minimum - so that the one can benefit from the excess. And if that human also wants a big hut, well, then you have to convince them to do even more work. Just hope that nobody notices that they work that much harder each day and have less to show for it.

Thus, we come across the origin of selling work as a noble virtue. Peep a couple of these bible quotes.

So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him? (Ecclesiastes 3:22)
Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense. (Proverbs 12:11) 
And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. (Luke 10:7)

And I believe we have all heard variations on the phrase, the devil makes work for idle hands, which is believed to have originated in a letter sent in the 4th century by the theologian Jerome: Do something, so that the Devil may always find you busy.

Having actual slaves, actual indentured people who are literally forced to perform labour for a leader (or collective of leaders), was a practice so common that I barely need to touch on it. It's a practice that continues today, even right now as we speak, though it is dressed up as prison labour. That said, one can't have an entire population that are literally enslaved - one needs a significant percentage of their people to not believe they need to be freed, so it is good for them to see that the key to a good life is to put in work, all day, every day, under the circumstances provided.

Oh hi, Feudalism. A big old pyramid scheme, with the king at the top, the nobility in the middle, and the peasant class at the bottom. There's your nobility of work.

Oh hi, Victorian workhouses.

Springing up in the 17th century as a means of providing something for poor people without upsetting the pockets of not-poor people, the workhouse was where you went if you didn't have any money. Because it is a sin to offer a hand of help to people that aren't making themselves useful.

Herein we find where this ethic becomes useful: because if you lionise the worker, and you enshrine as holy the notion that one has to work for their supper (even while those higher in society don't do so), then you can very easily adjust your thinking into believing that those that do not - or cannot - work, don't deserve any help. It allows one to demonise the concept of "something for nothing". Describing monetary or fiscal assistance to those of the lower classes as "handouts", while describing such a thing to businesses as "stimulus".

It is a weapon that can be aimed at any number of individuals that certain more conservative states might decide need to be the enemy of the day. Refugees, for example. Immigrants. Local disenfranchised populations. Teenagers. Protesters. The homeless. So on. Also, it is used to dismiss individuals who are opposed to being charged for things they feel they should not be charged for, for whatever reason. Tuition fees in the United States are a good example; most arguments that they should be forgiven or eased are met with some derivative of "you can't have something for nothing", often accompanied by a "back in my day". The word Scrounger gets used a lot, too, as a pejorative. This specific point of view can get shored up very easily by television programmes that demonise and villainise those who rely on benefits or external support - just one wing of the Right Wing Propaganda Block of programming that goes out daily on British TV.

What we can also do, at this point, is we can imply that it is only through hard work that one can gain wealth - and thus by the simple facts already established, we arrive at wealth being a virtue in and of itself, which makes it even easier to demonise those that don't have any. You're seen as a better person if you have plenty of cash, because it is implied that you worked for it, which is an inherently good thing to do. If you don't have cash, you are seen as a worse person, because you obviously haven't worked.

Let alone the hundreds, nay, thousands of reasons why effort put in doesn't equal reward gained - or the hundreds, nay, thousands of reasons why one can work hard and put in their virtuous noble labour and still end up bankrupt and homeless. If one is poor, if one is having difficulties, they can just work their way out of it - even if they can't. To the purveyors of this particular mindset, every problem that a person has should be overcome by them "just working harder".

That is the narrative. Right there. We justify our existence through our work, so those who do not or cannot can be dismissed, and so we do not have to provide assistance for anyone. We reject and deny and condemn those who want or expect "something for nothing", because everyone has to work, everyone has to contribute, and pay no attention to those carving off massive shares of what profits we make to keep themselves comfortable.

Except that phrase I keep using. Something For Nothing.

That concept is treated as a closed system, totally independent of any other factor. That this individual, regardless of their personal circumstances, wants - and perhaps expects - to receive some kind of benefit, for no effort or repayment. That's how it is phrased, and most people who will use the term in the context of wanting to deny others any kind of help or support will mean it that way.

This of course ignores how these benefits or fiscal forgivenesses are funded, and that is through tax - billions and billions of pounds worth of tax every year. This tax is used on a wide, wide variety of things - but it includes such things as benefits. Your tax money isn't ring-fenced; road tax on vehicles isn't solely used for maintenance of highways, National Insurance contributions aren't solely used for the NHS. It all goes into one single large fund, which is used to pay for everything that society needs - or so the plan goes.

So if you have had a job for a long time, and lived in a local council, and have bought things in local shops, and have a car that you drive, then you have paid a lot of tax; and if you are unable to work for a period of time, that means that, if you ask for some fiscal support to not - you know - starve, then you have already contributed to the fund that would actually support you.

What about someone who comes to this country from somewhere else? A refugee for example? They haven't done any work. Thus, if they expect any help, they are asking for Something For Nothing! They can't have it, because they haven't worked, and work is good, and work is noble, and not working isn't noble! (Or at least, so we would be led to believe.)

Well here's the thing; the third highest contributing tax to the national income is Value Added Tax, which is applied to the sales of damn near everything.

I have probably discussed this before, but just living in this country, even if you are having your housing provided by the state, means you still contribute to the economy - multiple times over. You walk into a shop and buy a £2 bottle of fruit juice - 40p of that goes straight to the treasury, and the profit the shop has made on the fruit juice is added to their total profits, which also get taxed as corporation tax. The people that made the juice? Yep, they pay taxes on their profits too, as do the people that made the bottles, the labels, and everyone else. Turns out that just about everyone pays tax, if they don't subsist on lichen and sunlight.

Even if they were given that £2 by the government - the government gets so much of it back so quickly that the actual cost to the government is so much less than the actual sum of money handed over. Anything that doesn't end up back in the tax coffers either goes into bank savings - which thanks to the eighties can be gambled on the stock market, for good or ill - or cycled through an endless churn of businesses that ends up stoking the economy as a whole.

But none of that matters, of course; because work as a virtue - and thus wealth as a virtue - is an ideology, projected into the world by those that have the money, and picked up by those that want the money and to not feel guilty about it. Be good, be obedient. Do your work. Make the money for the owners. That makes you a good person. This educational film will show you why.

The constant march of work-worship has its costs, of course. The arts suffer constantly, due to their not being seen as worthwhile unless one can make a profit from them. Even actual documented evidence that shows that working a four-day week improves productivity by 40% - more than accounting for the extra day workers don't spend at their desks - gets roundly rubbished and ignored.

So when Rishi Sunak says he believes he believes in the nobility of work, he is echoing something that his fellow Conservative politician Iain Duncan-Smith said, which is: Work makes you free.


Even if it can be proved that an objectively kinder, objectively more merciful system and methodology is actually better for the economy and the individual alike - while people that believe in the "nobility of work" are in charge, it is not something we shall ever see.

Remember: Rishi Sunak and Iain Duncan Smith alike both voted to end free school meals for children, despite their own meals being paid for by the taxpayer.

Just something to think about.

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