Upon writing this, I have just returned from a debate at the Durham Union Society on the proposition of re-introducing national service. A few themes were woven throughout the evening's discourse. Young people, unemployed people, young AND unemployed people; all these citizens owe a sense of civic responsibility to their country. All these people have a duty to society. All these people must work for society.
And that, its proponents said, justified a service whereby young people and people claiming welfare would work -or for want of a better term, 'volunteer'- for a year, under a completely mandatory scheme. It's a bill that is currently on its way to Second Reading in the Commons, but is unlikely to progress any further. But this discussion triggered a flashback for me. I recently watched a documentary where a single mother in the United States would travel 40 miles a day on a bus to work under a controversial, GOP-backed scheme called 'welfare-to-work'. In order for her to claim the 'state handouts' she needed to make ends meet, she was ultimately forced to leave her children at home while she laboured all day in a restaurant.
Similar justifications as the ones I had heard in the altogether far more privileged context of the Durham Union Society for this scheme were made; if the state is giving you something, you must give back. It is a duty. You cannot get something-for-nothing.
This isn't unfamiliar language. It is the language that taints the debate surrounding benefits today. It distorts, it poisons, it makes deeply ideological, it divides, and it conquers the information the masses absorb.
And this is the state of affairs that young people today are brought up in. The legacy of the decline of the values of the Beveridge Report, the erasure of the Bennites, the establishment of the Washington Consensus, of the Laissez Faire commitments of Thatcher and the Thatcherites that walk the hollowed corridors of Westminster today. Instead of society being something we can rely on, it is something that relies on our commitment to it. This isn't always a toxic idea. We do owe society something. It affords us infrastructure, healthcare, education, social security when we fall on hard times. We therefore, once we come of age, pay tax; progressive tax. Those of us of whom society is most comfortable pay more in for those of who suffer under its often oppressive nature. It is a mechanism for setting straight unjust imbalances that are not sustainable or healthy for anyone. But we owe this tax because society should have, ideally, helped us. When we are most vulnerable, it nurtures us to a state in which we are not. We can then be secure in a career in which we can finally earn enough to pay back in. It is a cycle that the government has a duty -yes, a duty- to fulfil, to regulate.
For young people, this mean that we should be given education, an education paid for by the taxpayers' that once benefited from it themselves. And once the fruits of that education transpire in the form of financial security when it comes to gaining a job from the 'job creators' of whom are endowed with the nation's largest share of GDP, we too will go on to pay our contribution to society. Because society has fulfilled its role of working for us, in return we work for it. It is a two-stage set up that requires investment from those governing us, and not the governed being forced to invest in them through a 'national service'.
But this doesn't happen. The state of affairs today are substantially worse for millennials; the poorest of us must pass the hurdles of stagnant social mobility, pay Â£9000 a year for a degree that in no way offers any guarantee of security, and then face a graduate market that, if it were one physical market, would resemble an abandoned street in a dystopian zombie horror movie. And when we do turn to the government for support via benefits a-midst the very debt that government now urges be paid back, we face demonization; this discourse about how we owe the state for being a burden.
Baby boomers, in comparison, had free universities, a booming job market, a pre-2008 economy. It was theirs for the taking. It's just a shame that de-regulation, privatization, mismanagement and destruction of the Earth's resources was the road that they decided to take. But they are not the burden, we are. Of course.. Welfare today is no longer seen as compensation for where the markets or the government have failed us, have made us vulnerable. No, welfare and being a citizen of who benefits from said welfare -a struggling graduate, say- is a monstrous evil. It erases the divineness of individual responsibility, which of course is the bedrock of civil responsibility, apparently. What was once a collectivist notion is now built wholly on the individual. There's a paradox there, somewhere.
If that individual is vulnerable, it is their fault, they are the burden.
Some argue that this burden -when on the back of the young- can be relieved in a beneficial way; you know, if you work for nothing for a year or so, if you give yourself to society as an unpaid worker, you will gain valuable work experience. "It's good for your CV!", they say. It's strikingly reminiscent of the justifications for unpaid internships and knowingly dismissive of the deep need young people have to earn a decent living wage like the rest of the human beings in this country. It is dismissive of the illegality of this set-up. That's why Conservative MPs were recently told to ensure they do not use 'volunteer' and 'intern' interchangeably.
If there is such a huge level of youth unemployment, they must think, then surely it is the fault of the young, for not having the set of skills that make them employable. It is not the failure of the job creators, the government, the generation past to ensure decent levels of employment, of decent opportunities. So, along those lines of logic, young people must accept that their burden-relieving goes unpaid. That, they say, will teach the lesson of civil and/or individual responsibility -because they are now synonymous under the watchful eyes of neo-liberal powers- to the 'me, me, me' generation.
Except, how is it a millennial's burden? The millennials paid for their education, we pay the government for a product that decades ago was free, that wasn't a product at all. We walk endlessly around markets destroyed by a government we haven't voted in, a government that has failed to govern. The superior argument is not that we owe the state for any state security they offer, but that the state owes us free compensation for making the market outside campus uninhabitable. The idealistic argument for 'civic responsibility' simply does not bode well when civil society has not been responsible to us.
We are not commodities; we were not born to be cogs in a failed machine. Society has failed us, we have not failed it. We do not owe it compensation for the failures of our parents.
Society owes us compensation. Society must work for us.
And then we will work for it, for its sustainability, in a way our predecessors have not.
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