Anything You Get is More Than You Deserve
Last week the advertising agency Iris was the target of internet outrage over the design of their employee benefits booklet Iris on Benefits, which plays on the British chav stereotype for laughs.
The figure of the chav is a common, derogatory caricature of poor British working class whites that represents them as crude, loud, lazy, violent, materialistic, racist track-suit-wearing drunks who commit crime and take advantage of the welfare system, enjoying unemployment and housing benefits without contributing anything back to society.
Anti-chav sentiment seems to have risen. Chavs are the butt of jokes on British television shows and there are websites like ChavScum and ChavTowns (“Britain’s worst places to live!”) which endlessly rehearse middle class grievances against this group. More recently, there’s a growing anti-anti-chav backlash by leftists who criticize the label for promoting class prejudice and dehumanizing the poor — for example, the book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class.
Most, if not all of the controversy was along these lines, and ultimately the CEO of the agency was forced to issue a public apology. This is all well and good, and this kind of critique is certainly important. At the same time, prejudice against those receiving government benefits isn’t new. What I found most striking about the booklet is the way that middle class employees who have worked for their benefits are basically represented as freeloaders.
We’re iris, and we’re family. We’re a tight-knit bunch holding our own on the mean streets of Southwark. We look out for each other, ‘cause what’s more important than family? Benefits, that’s what. Free stuff. Cheap stuff. Serious stuff. Fun stuff. As one of us, you’re entitled to it. Have you earned it? Probably not. But listen, if there’s free stuff going begging, then you’d be a fool not to grab it, right? We’re just saying.
What’s interesting here is that even the ostensibly “productive” middle class can be represented as freeloading scum, a possibility that is missed by the predominant, often moralizing framework that levels a critique solely in terms of middle class prejudice and hard-hearted mockery of the less fortunate. The more interesting ideological implications of this booklet is the way it proletarianizes the middle class, effectively claiming that all workers, even white collar, creative-class workers, are parasitic on the true wealth-creators: the capitalist class.
It’s not difficult to imagine this booklet extending its bizarre logic beyond employee benefits and including wages as something to be counted as “free stuff” that we parasites somehow haven’t earned but are shamelessly helping ourselves to. This is a vision of society where you deserve nothing, you are entitled to nothing, you are basically the property of your employer and you should be grateful for what you do get because it is always more than you deserve. Everyone is dragging down society, except for the 1%.
It may seem like this is an isolated example, but the framing of union workers as greedy parasites because they are striking for small pay increases is an absolutely normal and accepted part of political discourse, at least in the United States. Iris employee booklet is only a modest, but vivid variation on this theme.
On this blog I’ve written about the concept of the decline of symbolic efficiency, a description of contemporary society that has several facets, but for the purposes of this post, the important one is that there are no more widely agreed-upon social norms and roles, prohibitions, big ideals and unwritten rules governing everyday life. It means that the ideal of work ethic is no longer operative.
But doesn’t this contradict my earlier point that we are entering a society where anything you get is more than you deserve? Doesn’t all the paranoia over welfare queens, chavs, Mexican immigrants living off our tax dollars and so on suggest that the work ethic is alive and well?
These facts only confirm its death. How can this be true? It’s very easy to make the mistake of thinking that the decline of symbolic efficiency is a problem of laxity and too much freedom — both conservatives and liberals apparently agree on this point. The disagreement is over whether this is a good thing or not. But in the absence of symbolic norms and roles, we do not get freedom, instead we get the opposite: the irrational, excessive terror of the superego.
The work ethic meant that if you worked hard and sacrificed, you were promised a middle class lifestyle. But the undermining of the work ethic does not translate into an end to the demand to work. Instead it means the opposite, that we can never stop working because we never feel like we’ve met whatever standard would entitle us to a decent standard of living.
The shifting meaning of these words – entitled, entitlement – is deeply connected to the decline of symbolic efficiency. The verb form has two meanings: to give something a name or title; and, to assign a legal right or claim. The symbolic order, as the domain of both law and language, must function for this to occur, so to be en-titled is to be installed in the symbolic order.
Today it is much more common to use the term “entitled” in a negative way, often to describe someone who has a false or inflated beliefs about how other people should treat them. But notice that when you say something like “She’s so entitled,” it’s never necessary to specify that her sense of entitlement is illegitimate! That part is now taken for granted, because every entitlement is assumed from the outset to be false. So then to call someone entitled is almost to say that they are deluded, thinking that there still is a symbolic order to back them up.
The phrase can also mean that a person falsely believes they have a right, some permission to do something. To call that belief entitled is to say that really nothing is permitted, and to believe otherwise is a delusion. This returns us to the earlier point that the decline of the symbolic order producing excessive regulation. An expression like this, of generalized skepticism about someone’s entitlements, doesn’t liberate us from the Law. Just the opposite, it means total prohibition. Or as Lacan put it, if God (that is, the symbolic order) is dead, everything is prohibited.
In politics, designating a government benefit as an entitlement is a rhetorical move used by conservatives to undermine it, but isn’t it strange that this works at all? Implying that something is a right seems counterproductive for conservative goals, and yet it works in their favor. The word is used as an epithet, as if believing that you have any rights at all is evidence in itself of some kind of personal corruption, like arrogance, narcissism or laziness.
Democrats concede to this perverse logic when they claim, bizarrely, that social security is not an entitlement program. You pay into it, so you have a right to the benefits. In other words, social security is not an entitlement because you’re… entitled to it? The word has been reversed into its opposite. Although it seems that this is an assertion of a right, it grounds itself in pre-political “objective” foundations of capitalism rather than the symbolic political fiction of citizenship.
It was once possible for union workers to agitate for higher wages because they could claim that they had met the requirements of the work ethic, so were entitled to a middle class standard of living. Although today’s workers are widely believed to be lazy, this belief is absolutely immune to any facts showing how hard they work or how little they are paid. How can the work ethic really function as a social norm if it is impossible to adhere to, if everyone is already guilty of violating it no matter what they do?
The more you obey the irrational, contradictory demands of the superego, the more you are guilty. First you’re made to feel guilty and feel like a freeloader for not working hard enough, so you double your efforts. But this doesn’t exonerate you. Being a hard worker implies that you believe you’ve met a certain social expectation, that deserve more than what the market will pay for your labor. This means you are a greedy and entitled freeloader! The only people who escape this logic are the so-called job creators, who don’t work at all, but profit off the labor of others.