If this chaos doesn’t make us rethink our idea of ​​a good society, what will it be?

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«Our most severe pains arise from intermittent work. It produces intermittent energy in the worker; rest days become habitual; with indolence comes intemperance; with the uncertainty of work comes unconsciousness for the future; from this derives pauperism and the whole series of psychic and physical infirmities which are the creatures of pauperism ».

So wrote Charles Stewart Loch, professor of economics and statistics at King’s College London and secretary of the Charity Organization Society, in his 1883 book How to help cases of discomfort. A great proponent of the distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, Loch saw in “intermittent work” – casual work – the curse of the late Victorian economy, the consequence of which was the “demoralization” of the worker, his disengagement from a moral framework and a regression to its innate tendency to “indolence”, “intemperance” and “recklessness” and finally to pauperism.

It was a belief rooted in the worldview of “Poor Laws”. The Poor Act of 1834 required that poor relief seekers be incarcerated in a workhouse and those able to work subject to forced labor. In the early 20th century, incarceration was replaced by means-based care (which was much cheaper), but the stigma of seeking relief and the feeling that the poor had to be forced to work were maintained.

The idea of ​​poverty as a product of individual moral failure has been reintegrated into the political debate

A century and a half after Loch, not only “intermittent work”, which we now euphemistically call the “flexible labor market”, has once again become a feature of the economy, but the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor and the idea of ​​poverty. as a product of individual moral failure, it has been reintegrated into the political debate.

Next month marks the 80th anniversary of perhaps the most important report on the question of how to tackle poverty and unemployment: Social Security and Allied Services, better known as the Beveridge report. A liberal economist and politician, William Beveridge set out to address what he saw as the “Five Great Evils” that plagued society: misery, disease, ignorance, squalor and laziness. Building on many contemporary debates, Beveridge supported state intervention to create full employment, social security for the unemployed, a national health service, universal secondary school education, and a national social housing program. The report established the framework for the postwar welfare state.

For all the significance of the Beveridge report, however, it was still in many ways rooted in the old view of the law on the poor of work and poverty. The very labeling of unemployment as “inactivity” revealed the degree to which Beveridge appealed to the old Victorian moralist view. What he wanted was to rationalize the labor market to make the most of the workforce. He was as opposed to collective bargaining and “restrictive” trade union practices as he was to unemployment and “intermittent work”.

Beveridge set out to create a social security system that would help contain what was regarded as “social dependence” – the failure of self-sufficiency – at minimal public costs. “Beveridge’s attack on idleness,” notes public policy academic Noel Whiteside, “was essentially a moral crusade against wasted human capacity that undermined his desire to synchronize personal well-being with economic efficiency.” . The moral view of poverty maintained a ghostly presence not only in the Beveridge report but also in the postwar welfare state.

Since the 1980s, the Keynesian consensus on which Beveridge’s vision of economic rationality was built has been broken. The labor market has been deregulated, public services privatized, trade union resistance broken and the welfare state degraded. In this new era, the market, not the state, would ensure the rational use of labor.

It may have been a new economic era, but the old idea of ​​poverty as a moral rather than a political issue, a consequence of individual behavior rather than the politics of society, has gained more popularity. From the New Labor crusade against “problem families” to George Osborne’s condemnation of “offenders … sleeping a life with benefits,” the divide between the deserving and the undeserving poor, which had never completely disappeared, has risen.

Free market libertarians often fail to see that prosperity requires a community within which to thrive

What has been missing in much of this public policy history is the sense of “human flowering”, of the idea that the role of the state should not be simply to rationalize resources, coerce the poor and minimize assistance. public, but to enable people to live a full and thriving life.

The idea of ​​”human flowering” is deeply rooted in philosophy and psychology, but much less in politics. It is not that the concept is ignored in politics. Much of the political discourse is an implicit debate on how best to ensure prosperity. And there were times, as in the immediate postwar period, when the question seemed much more urgent and the answers more understandable.

But the flowering issue has rarely been explicitly discussed and, when it has been, too often it has been distorted or constrained. Communitarianists, for example, such as the American philosopher Michael Sandel, often attach great importance to the idea and importance of communities in cultivating such prosperity. But their view of communities is often narrow and exclusive and their understanding of freedoms is limited. Free market libertarians sometimes speak of prosperity, which they see in terms of greater individual freedom, but often fail to see that prosperity requires a community within which to thrive and that work is more than a commodity to be exploited.

The meaning of the idea of ​​human prosperity is that it allows us to connect the individual to the social, as well as forcing us to think about both material improvements and the social bonds that give meaning and meaning to our lives. It can also force us to rethink political priorities. Many of the neglected areas of contemporary public policy – a genuine state-funded childcare system, a well-equipped public transport system, a decent framework for social care for the elderly – are central to any conception of prosperity. .

The current moment of political chaos and disintegration may seem like an ominous point to inspire a debate on flowering. However, it may also be the ideal time to reorient the very framework within which we think about public policies. Eighty years after the Beveridge report, the time has come to do so.

• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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