Tory MP at the foodbank

It's that special time of the year when your Conservative MP for Haltemprice leads by moral example. 

"Every can helps" the spongers, the workshy and the wheelchair layabouts. It helps them by not putting any more money in their feckless hands. They won't starve, but nor can they make any stupid decisions, like buying 3 litres of cider to get blotted. 

Presentationally, these visits are disastrous. At least when Blair visited the poor, he often took off his tie and jacket, and rolled up his shirt sleeves. He implied industriousness, polite English egalitarianism, informality, and a prim meritocratic disdain for excess. Tories, by contrast, turn up proudly in the tailored suit and jag. Because that's the other part of the moral example they're setting. Their success may not literally be available to the poor but those who run with the swift run faster. Watch and learn.

From the point of view of the government, of course, the growth of foodbanks is not the scandal that it is to others. The growth of non-government social welfare provision is precisely one of the things that the 'Big Society', from its inception, was all about. From the point of view of neoliberals, from Hayek to Thatcher, welfare should reflect the voluntary moral initiative of communities, families and businesses, as opposed to the collectivism of democratic decision-making. And that was exactly the purview of the 'Big Society' Tories, whom mainly naively characterised as 'wet'.

And from the government's point of view, austerity has worked. It is not that austerity has markedly improved the performance and competitiveness of British capitalism. It really hasn't. But, look at the government's response to the UN special rapporteur's Jeremiad on British social misery. Aside from complaining that his language was  -- operatic gasp -- political, they insisted that he was just plain wrong. Look at the levels of employment, look at the fall in the number of children in workless households, look at the fall in income inequality, look at the growth in household incomes.

Obviously, a lot of what the government claims is conscious bullshit. Falling inequality was a predictable effect of the crash and of the subsequent economic stagnation. Household incomes have grown on average because the economy has grown in aggregate, but the main beneficiaries have been the middle class. Like all Conservative governments, this one has paid off its 'industrious', 'productive' base at the expense of the unemployed, the working poor, single mothers, and the disabled.

However, the expansion of employment is real. During the post-credit crunch recessions, British capitalism was notable for its historically moderate rise in unemployment. The strategy of capital, rather than mass lay-offs, was to keep workers on a casualised or part-time basis. In the growth period, the strategy has been to hire new workers on a similar basis. The majority of new jobs created in this period have been casual. Only one in forty jobs created since the recession has been full-time. The total casual workforce now includes seven million workers

This is a comprehensive labour-market restructuring that has long been underway, and has been enabled and encouraged by austerity policies: particularly those cutting benefits and replacing welfare with workfare. The idea is to increase workers' dependence on labour markets, to reduce the overall bargaining power and thus price of labour-power. On that basis, new dynamism is expected, at some point, to resume.

For those living it, precarity, poverty and panic are part of the same fabric of experience. To be poor and economically insecure is to be constantly threatened by sudden shocks. If you're poor, you already have restricted freedom, mobility, life chances. There is so little you can do, about anything. Suddenly, you lose it all and you suffer a massive reduction in the already meagre possibilities for enjoyment, satisfaction, for having any sort of project in life. The possibilities are meagre, but the reduction is massive; because the less you have, the more what little you have matters. And you're always in debt, and in the worst, most penalising types of debt, and trying to manage the latest crisis with more debt. At any moment, indigence could come knocking: an unexpected bill, a health crisis, another job loss, debt collectors banging on the door. You're always on the brink, on the point of the sword. Panic, a sudden shot of adrenaline, the momentary loss of rational thinking, the world closing in on you, your very being contracting, is always just there.

And guilt is part of this fabric, too. When crisis comes, you don't just think of how socially unjust, and how gratuitously unnecessary, your situation is. The accurate response is not the spontaneous response. Particularly when you have no way to make any indignation politically effective. You think instead of ways in which you must have brought this on yourself. You think of petty expenditures, little pleasures purchased for a momentary relief, which could have been saved. You think about the ways you self-medicate, and the ways in which these habits have come to take the place of having a life. And there are lots of people who specialise in working that guilt and panic, who know just how to tighten its grip at the moment when you're up against the wall, to make you work harder, pay up, obey.

This casualisation and impoverishment of the workforce looks, from the bird's eye view, like something else entirely. It looks like an achievement. It looks like growth. It looks like moral improvement because, fill in your own cliche about welfare dependency. It looks like a boom in part because living standards for the rich and affluent are booming. From that point of view, poverty is either a useful motivator, keeping people productive, or a transitional experience of little overall significance, or -- if it threatens morally ugly destitution -- an unpleasant little blot on an otherwise majestic moral landscape. So, you turn up at a foodbank and throw a few cans of baked beans and peeled plum tomatoes at the poor.