Could society move beyond the rhetoric of ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’ and be rebuilt around understanding and compassion? The effects would be revolutionary, argues Elena Blackmore
The binary rhetoric that currently surrounds the welfare state reflects a deep moral narrative with a crippling social impact. ‘Strivers’ and ‘skivers’ are two sides of the same coin. That coin is shame.
One side represents the deserving, and the other side the undeserving. Rachel Reeves, the UK shadow work and pensions secretary, recently said that: “We [the Labour Party] are not the party of people on benefits”. She faced some criticism for these words, but these are messages we hear daily, from government and opposition alike.
We’re here for hard-working families. We’re here for the taxpayer.
In this narrative, employment equals worth, while unemployment casts you into the world of the untouchables.
Economic policies are created around this notion of worth. Unemployment must be a choice – you’re shirking – so let’s coax you out of it. You don’t need benefits in your first week of unemployment since you should be looking for work. We’ll put sanctions on you if you’re unemployed for too long.
Shame on you for being unemployed.
You don’t deserve the same basic things as other people – the strivers – like a bedroom if you have a disability, or enough money to live reasonably well. You’re a scrounger, you’re scrounging.
Unemployment is immoral, and you must be punished for it.
The moral choice, clearly, is to be employed. But don’t go resting on your laurels – having a job isn’t enough. You have to be a striver: you must strive. You can’t just work: you must be hard-working. Your worth is based purely on your continued commitment to the rat race.
If there’s a destination, it almost doesn’t matter. Whether or not your job is making any kind of contribution to the functioning of society is irrelevant. You’ve just got to aspire to be more than you are. Your worth is dependent on it.
Behind these aspirations – the need to prove ourselves, to achieve greater social status and material wealth – are a highly destructive set of values which underpin rampant consumerism and discriminatory attitudes. They lie behind the arrogance that puts profit before planet. They fuel anxiety, stress and depression. And, as the writer David Graeber asks: “How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?”
Both strivers and skivers are cultural representations of the belief that we aren’t enough. This belief is the foundation of shame. The welfare state is really a state of shame. And the ‘not enough’ mentality is bolstered by a host of other fears that we’re reminded of daily: not enough jobs, money, not enough international cooperation or environmental action to name but a few. The mainstream media and a noisy chorus of commercial advertising only serve to fuel this culture of fear and shame.
It's difficult to avoid absorbing this mentality. It runs deep in our narratives and spills over into our policies, seeping finally into our souls. And it’s one of the most destructive emotions, with a vast ripple effect.
Shame stifles creativity and innovation, and erodes relationships with friends, families and communities. Shame creates vicious cycles. Researcher Brené Brown describes one aspect of these cycles in two core thoughts: what’s wrong with me? And who’s to blame? We quickly move to pass our shame onto other people. We criticise, we’re cynical and we’re violent in our words and actions. If I’m not worthy, then you definitely aren’t. The oppressed become the oppressors.
In other words, and somewhat ironically, believing that we’re not enough actually makes us worse.
So how can we be better? Brown says that the opposite of shame is empathy, and calls the compassionate and courageous acceptance of yourself and others ‘wholeheartedness’.
Placing wholeheartedness at the centre could build much more virtuous cycles between personal change and political action. But what might wholehearted attempts to change the economy of shame look like in practice?
One radical shift would be to decouple human worth from our economic role or employment status. We could just call ourselves people, and let that be enough. “We are the party for everyone who lives here,” we could say.
We could give people the dignity of a citizen’s income rather than subjecting them to a punishing benefits system – an income given to every person, universally and unconditionally. No scrounging: we’re all in this together. No need to strive. We’d be freed from the need to serve capital. We could view all of our activities – childcare, creative practice, nurturing our relationships with nature – as more valuable.
People living in Mincome, a pilot citizen’s income scheme carried out in Canada in the 1970s, found that women took more time on maternity leave and young people were likely to stay in education for longer. But aside from these benefits, and busting the shame-fuelled myths of detractors, very few people stopped working as a result of receiving this unconditional income.
Another pilot scheme in the United States did show a small reduction in working hours, but alongside a significant increase in health, wellbeing and educational attainment. Which would you prefer to strive for?
The cultural shift afforded by such schemes could be huge: if people are told that they are enough as they already are, they will be better. When we feel worthy we are more creative and supportive of others – we care and we love and we look after one another.
To support a more compassionate economy, we can also introduce empathy into other institutions like schools, something that’s already been tried in thousands of classrooms across the world by an organisation called Roots of Empathy. A baby is brought into the classroom for a number of sessions, and children are encouraged to think about what the baby is feeling. The learning that takes place is described as “caught rather than taught” by the programme’s founder, Mary Gordon.
If you only care about the economic contribution of your citizens, says Gordon, then teaching technical subjects like maths and science would be enough. But, she says, “If you look at the developmental health and wealth of a nation, it’s undeniably dependent on the emotional health of its citizenry”. Empathy lies at the heart of our emotional health.
Children who go through the programme are often happier, more connected, less angry and anxious, and more aware of each others’ feelings. Imagine the domino effect of those improvements on the rest of society.
Building society around understanding and compassion? Facing shame head on, with self-acceptance and compassion for others? Now that could be revolutionary.