I’m an on-and-off fan/non-fan of the blog Another Angry Voice (AAV) – it’s broadly okay, I suppose. It tends to have decently thought-out opinions and is at least macroeconomically literate. But there’s a lot that grinds me about it: the insistence on using “mainstream media” to mean “anything that isn’t my blog and disagrees with me”, for instance, smacks of an irritating-as-fuck persecution complex.
For those unaware, AAV tends to summarise key points as these colourful little meme images, one of which is today’s subject. And this one seems to have something extra specially fishy going on.
(oh, for the uninitiated: “workfare” – a portmanteau of “work” and “welfare”, of course – is where someone who is unemployed and receiving unemployment benefits and welfare must work for those benefits. Yes, someone is employed.. but receiving unemployment benefits. They must work for their benefits while they’re out of work. Hopefully the problems with this are immediately and abundantly obvious to you. Anyway…)
The only time you see people try to re-frame arguments by definition – just by changing the nouns used to describe things – is because they’re desperate to grab hold of some extra connotations associated with a word, without actually demonstrating them. Think about a broad example: is it “art” or is it “not art”? A deep-sounding question superficially, but actually just bollocks-ridden pointlessness. It doesn’t matter. A painting remains a painting regardless if you call it “art” or not, and an unmade bed remains an unmade bed through the same token – but if you get to call it “art”, you can grab some freebies associated with “art” regardless of what the “it” actually is. Connotation-freebies like value, the ability to exhibit it, the nodding approval of people and critics, and descriptions of yourself as “talented”. Notice how this change of wording doesn’t actually change anything about the argument at all, the “it” remains the same.
In this case from AAV, is it a left-right issue or an authoritarian-libertarian issue? Doesn’t matter. The issue is what is important. We’ll get onto the connotations that they’re trying to drag across with this re-framing in a moment.
There’s another layer to this re-framing; it’s just an excuse to dig at people for “misunderstanding” something. If you can frame something as a misunderstanding – even if it’s a trivial one – you can sell a position as novel, and therefore valuable. You can grant art value merely by labelling it “art”, you can make knowledge valuable simply by making it hidden and then revealed. There has to be a reason people pay for Scientology, right? So it doesn’t matter if it’s true, if you appear to be myth-busting, your information appears more valuable. It’s how conspiracy theories spread – it really, really, really doesn’t matter if it’s true or untrue, if it’s framed as a counter-narrative the information becomes more unique, and therefore valuable, and people will buy into it (even if not literally buying it).
I’m not saying that anything put like this is wrong automatically – hell, I’m sure I do it all the damn time – but I have to note how near enough everything that comes from AAV is phrased like this: “here is something the mainstream, the Crowd, the Man believes is true.. and now here’s our Revealed Truth for you.” It raises a lot of alarm bells for me when an organisation or a person or blogger or author does this not just on occasion, but as a matter of course.
Pretty much every time you see someone describe something as a libertarian-authoritarian issue, it’s because they’re motivated to make you think libertarianism is awesome and the solution to everything, and that Ayn Rand is a total genius and everyone shouldn’t have to pay taxes. In fact, any time you see someone phrase it as a “[something]ism-authoritarianism” it’s only ever because they want to sell [something]ism to you. Think of the connotations that people want to bring in by using those terms. No-one likes being told what to do, so authoritarian is Bad. Authoritarianism is Bad because Authoritarianism is Bad. So anything diametrically opposed to it must be Good. Because Logic, right?
That’s the power of the connotation, and it’s also a strong argument for not letting people dictate the terms of a debate to you – atheists have to justify their source of absolute morality only because theists and believers have dictated that this is important, pro-choice proponents of abortion need to effectively justify the killing of an unborn child because the “pro-life” side own the terminology, and so on. So I absolutely don’t think that AAV should have the right to unilaterally dictate whether anti-workfare is automatically libertarian – and especially not if it’s only an argument from definition and prefaced by a bit of trickery to make the opinion seem more valuable to people.
But the real strange thing about this specific post is that a libertarian stance would more likely say that workfare is only wrong because the State does it. This usually applies quite literally. Take some of the episodes of Penn & Tell: Bullshit! that are, let’s say, more than a little politically skewed by their politics; often their only argument against something is that the government does it, therefore it’s bad – and if that’s not their sole argument, it’s at least the founding keystone that causes their entire episode to collapse if you remove it. Because in principle, libertarian stances put individual motive above all else, and in practice this usually means companies can and should do what they like without government interference. Even if that ends up being shitty for vulnerable people. If the private sector engaged in the equivalent of workfare (that is; taking the unemployed and systematically abusing their labour with low wages) and did it through a system of wage repression or out-sourcing to make labour uncompetitive, then it would be a Good Thing. The libertarian stance would suggest that this is simply the free market expressing itself and the end result is that companies make money because people were willing to sell their labour so cheaply (the key to this being the context around the word “willing”, there, as you can find plenty of people very willing to work for poverty level wages when the alternative is “starve to death” – hence why the super-free market definitely isn’t a moral place to live in). And if there’s no authority from the State controlling it or preventing it, doubleplusgood!
A more socialist or left-wing stance (yes, this is probably better described as a left-right issue, not that that truly matters) that opposes workfare would be, near enough by its own admission, authoritarian – because it’s still an edict from on high that tells companies they’re not allowed to exploit people, and it would still be telling people that the State knows how best to spend your tax money, i.e., on welfare and benefits, and without conditions that you have to go into indentured servitude in exchange for it. A State-sponsored solution is usually what we mean when we say “socialist” or “left” – authoritarian. The State would declare that there was a minimum wage – authoritarian. The State would declare it to be illegal to employ people for less than an assigned amount – authoritarian.
So if you really, really, really want to phrase the workfare issue as libertarian-authoritarian, we should really side with the authority. Just on the provision that the authority isn’t a complete cunt about it, which is the actual point.