There is so much more to be done with 21st century peasants than just making them poorer and more precarious. The following is just sample of stories collected over the last few weeks.
Consider it my own, much less smart, version of Gans’s functions of poverty – the functions of the precariat.
1. Gives the upper classes feelings of righteousness and moral outrage that bolster one’s sense of moral superiority:
“We all know that single mothers are immoral scroungers, right? That impression was cemented by last Wednesday’s Newsnight, when Allegra Stratton interviewed young single mother Shanene Thorpe.
Stratton demands to know why Thorpe has chosen to move out of her mother’s two-bedroom flat, since she required housing benefit to do so.
After the interview, Stratton says directly to camera: “The government is thinking of saying to young people: if you don’t have work, don’t leave home.”
Except, Thorpe is not unemployed. As you may have read by now, she works full time for Tower Hamlets council, but claims housing benefits to help cover the cost of rent. In a series of statements on Twitter (collated byLiberal Conspiracy), Thorpe attempted to tackle the inaccurate portrayal of her situation: “To set the record straight, I work for tower hamlets council, I’ve worked since 16 and I only get help towards my rent because it is so high.”
It is difficult to see how the BBC – which has yet to comment – will justify the coverage. It breaks basic journalistic tenets of accuracy and fairness, by heavily implying that Thorpe is unemployed when she is not.
More widely, it raises some troubling questions about the way that the media and politicians talk about poverty and benefit claimants. While outrage has, rightly, been focused on the fact that Thorpe was misrepresented since she is not unemployed, that is not the only problem with the interview. It perpetrates lazy assumptions about single mothers: scroungers who should hide themselves away and not ask for anything. On Twitter, Thorpe says that in the full interview, Stratton asked her why she chose to keep her child. Is that ever an acceptable question to ask someone, particularly when the reasoning behind it is so clearly class-based? Stratton is clearly pushing an agenda, and has no interest in the fact that in this case, the issue is the extortionate rents charged by private landlords.”
2. The precariat provides easy targets for predatory lending and other extortionist activities:
“Individually the poor are not too tempting to thieves, for obvious reasons. Mug a banker and you might score a wallet containing a month’s rent. Mug a janitor and you will be lucky to get away with bus fare to flee the crime scene. But as Business Week helpfully pointed out in 2007, the poor in aggregate provide a juicy target for anyone depraved enough to make a business of stealing from them.
The trick is to rob them in ways that are systematic, impersonal, and almost impossible to trace to individual perpetrators. Employers, for example, can simply program their computers to shave a few dollars off each paycheck, or they can require workers to show up 30 minutes or more before the time clock starts ticking.
Lenders, including major credit companies as well as payday lenders, have taken over the traditional role of the street-corner loan shark, charging the poor insanely high rates of interest. When supplemented with late fees (themselves subject to interest), the resulting effective interest rate can be as high as 600% a year, which is perfectly legal in many states.
It’s not just the private sector that’s preying on the poor. Local governments are discovering that they can partially make up for declining tax revenues through fines, fees, and other costs imposed on indigent defendants, often for crimes no more dastardly than driving with a suspended license. And if that seems like an inefficient way to make money, given the high cost of locking people up, a growing number of jurisdictions have taken to charging defendants for their court costs and even the price of occupying a jail cell.
You might think that policymakers would take a keen interest in the amounts that are stolen, coerced, or extorted from the poor, but there are no official efforts to track such figures. Instead, we have to turn to independent investigators, like Kim Bobo, author of Wage Theft in America, who estimates that wage theft nets employers at least $100 billion a year and possibly twice that. As for the profits extracted by the lending industry, Gary Rivlin, who wrote Broke USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. — How the Working Poor Became Big Business, says the poor pay an effective surcharge of about $30 billion a year for the financial products they consume and more than twice that if you include subprime credit cards, subprime auto loans, and subprime mortgages.
These are not, of course, trivial amounts. They are on the same order of magnitude as major public programs for the poor. The government distributeshttp://www.taxpolicycenter.org/brie… about $55 billion a year, for example, through the largest single cash-transfer program for the poor, theEarned Income Tax Credit; at the same time, employers are siphoning off twice that amount, if not more, through wage theft.”
3. The precariat can be pushed out of the way to reclaim desirable space for wealthier denizens in need of better Lebensraum:
“The world’s largest private yacht looms over the old port of Barcelona – its six-deck, 163m profile offering proof of the love of Russian billionaireRoman Abramovich for a city he will visit again this week as his football team, Chelsea, tries to secure a place in the Champions League final.
But the superyacht, equipped with its own mini-submarine and anti-paparazzi shield, is a symbol of what neighbours in the traditional fishermen’s neighbourhood of La Barceloneta fear will bring about the demise of one of the few city centre barrios to have maintained its traditional working-class character. Old Barcelona is under threat. A British private investment fund has taken control of much of the port area and has asked for an extended licence so that it can turn the Marina Port Vell into the Mediterranean’s prime home for superyachts. Sources close to the group said it wanted the licence to run until 2036.
The Mayfair-based Salamanca Group intends to make the marina home to yachts up to 180 metres long, bringing the planet’s growing club of mega-rich to a marina that it says “dominates the heart of Barcelona”. But Barceloneta residents say the boats will dwarf the neighbourhood’s famously narrow, four- or five-storey blocks of flats, where working-class families live in tiny homes and colourful outdoor washing lines leave the neighbourhood’s laundry on public display.
“I’ve lived here all my life and the barrio has a special identity, precisely because so many working-class people have always lived here,” said 68-year-old pensioner Antonio García, of the L’Ostia neighbourhood group. “But this will price us out, turning the port into a place only for the very rich and changing things for ever.”
Neighbours fear that a huge wall may go up around part of the port to ensure the privacy of a handful of wealthy people, creating a fortress-like billionaires’ ghetto on their doorstep. Protesters have already taken to Barceloneta’s narrow streets, demanding that speculators be kept away from an area renowned for its cheap seafood restaurants and proximity to Barcelona’s colourful urban beach.”
4. The low status of the precariat makes it easier to exploit with impunity and complete illegality:
“The housing charity Shelter says it has seen more evidence of landlords acting unscrupulously and evicting people illegally.
One estate agent said properties typically rented for £350 per week were being marketed for £6,000 per week.
Shelter fears the problem will get worse as the Games approach.
The BBC’s Michael Buchanan says: “The potential profits are leading to some private landlords telling their tenants they have to leave their homes, with little notice.”
Housing Minister Grant Shapps said: “Landlords should be under no doubt that it is a criminal offence for them to evict a tenant without giving proper notice, and that anyone found guilty of doing this – or of harassing a tenant – could lead to a custodial sentence of up to two years.””
Right, I expect all this will be diligently prosecuted.
5. The precariat constitutes the bulk of neocolonial labor army, easy to exploit out of sight, in conditions of quasi-slavery:
“Coca-Cola is facing questions about its links to orange harvesting in southern Italy, which campaigners say relies on the cheap labour of African migrants living in squalid conditions.
An investigation into citrus fruit growing in Calabria has revealed how thousands of African workers, many of whom have made the treacherous voyage across the Mediterranean in search of a new life, are earning as little as €25 (£21) for a day’s picking in orange groves in a region that supplies juice concentrates to several multinational companies.
Evidence gathered by The Ecologist shows that many migrants, some of whom are in Italy illegally, live in slum conditions in makeshift camps without power or sanitation and fall prey to gangmasters who in some cases charge a “fee” from their workers’ wages for organising their picking shifts.
Coca-Cola, whose global profits in 2010 stood at $11.8bn (£7.5bn), is one of a number of major buyers of concentrated orange juice in Calabria which it uses for its Fanta brand in Italy. The company said its Calabrian supplier had been given a clean bill of health by an independent auditor as recently as last May but admitted that the length of its supply chain meant it was unable to verify the practices on every farm or consortium whose juice is used in Fanta.”
See also this.
6. The precariat can be made to work at will on anything, as needed, for free:
“A group of long-term unemployed jobseekers were bussed into London to work as unpaid stewards during the diamond jubilee celebrations and told to sleep under London Bridge before working on the river pageant.
Up to 30 jobseekers and another 50 people on apprentice wages were taken to London by coach from Bristol, Bath and Plymouth as part of the government’s Work Programme.
Two jobseekers, who did not want to be identified in case they lost their benefits, said they had to camp under London Bridge the night before the pageant. They told the Guardian they had to change into security gear in public, had no access to toilets for 24 hours, and were taken to a swampy campsite outside London after working a 14-hour shift in the pouring rain on the banks of the Thames on Sunday.”
If they refuse, there is often the threat of benefit loss. Who would not volunteer?
7. And if they get too troublesome, they can be killed without consequences:
“Brazilian police are investigating whether the fatal shooting of three rural activists was linked to their effort to win rights to land also contested by owners of a sugar mill.
The activists were shot on Saturday as they got out of a car near a landless workers’ camp in the south-western Minas Gerais state.
A five-year-old girl, the granddaughter of two of those who were killed, survived the attack. No one has been arrested, a police spokesman said.
Watchdog groups said police were questioning land activists about the possibility the killings could have resulted from an internal conflict within their movement. The groups rejected that idea and accused landowners of paying gunmen to shoot the activists.
Carlos Calazans, head of the Minas Gerais branch of the federal department of land reform, known as Incra, said police were looking into the land dispute as a possible motive.
“It’s definitely one of the theories for the motive behind this barbarous crime,” he said. “I’ve no doubt these activists were summarily executed. But police have to follow all leads until they find the truth.”
Calazans said the killed couple approached Incra last year seeking support in various land conflicts in the region, including the one with the mill owners. He said Incra tried to get the owners and activists to agree on the issue a few weeks ago, but the effort was unsuccessful.
Killings over land in Brazil are common, and people rarely face trial for the crimes.
The watchdog group Catholic Land Pastoral says more than 1,150 rural activists have been murdered in Brazil over the past 20 years. The killings are mostly carried out by gunmen hired by loggers, ranchers and farmers to silence protests over illegal logging and land rights, it says. Most of the killings happen in the Amazon region.”
“The study by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) identifies a shift from “owning a luxury to experiencing a luxury” with bespoke treats now accounting for more than half of the $1.4tn spent on luxury goods and services last year.
Luxury sales have boomed in the last two years as the industry recovered from the hiatus caused by 2008 global financial crisis, which provoked a sharp fall in conspicuous consumption.
The sector has also been buoyed by the growing number of millionaire shoppers in markets such as China and Brazil, who are picking up the slack as consumers in traditionally important luxury markets such as western Europe, Japan and the US continue to spend more cautiously.
“The gap in income inequality is growing, which is unfortunate, but there are more and more millionaires every year,” said Jean-Marc Bellaiche, a BCG senior partner who heads the firm’s luxury practice.
Bellaiche said sales of luxury experiences grew 50% faster than demand for physical goods last year. The trend is explained, in part, by demographics – as the consumers who drove the luxury boom in the 1990s start to retire, he said.
“They do not want to own new things, so are the primary customers for experiential luxury offerings,” he said. Their options are not limited to exclusive safaris and spas, they can book themselves in for a five-star hospital stay where they will be waited on by a butler and the en suite facilities include a marble bath.
The attitude to luxury is also apparent among their children who, the report says, now want more than the latest designer fashions. “Members of Generation Y tend to define themselves more by what they’ve done and experienced than by what they own,” said Bellaiche.
“They are drawn to instant pleasure and lavish experiences – helicopter snowboarding in Alaska or a weekend shopping spree in Paris.”
The shift is evident “even in brand-obsessed China” where personal luxury goods serve as a strong badge of status and success, he added.
The business of providing luxury experiences – from art auctions to exclusive travel packages – is now worth $770bn, according to the study. BCG predicts a 7% increase in luxury spending this year, albeit at a slower rate than the industry has enjoyed in the last two years.”
What is interesting is that none of these things actually involve really doing anything (like being pampered in a five-star hotel). Natural spaces will be tamed and customized so that luxury services can be delivered there (as in luxury safari lodges, with complete staff). These “experiences” look more like badges that people accumulate as forms of capital.
The other thing is that the poor are often blamed for their supposed lack of deferred gratification, seen as a defect that keeps them in poverty, as opposed to the middle-class and its Weberian puritan habits.