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Coercion – its the way of the right

There has been such endless discussion of the Tory Government ‘workfare’ scheme that if you weren’t paying attention you’d think it was a technical matter and not a right-wing fetish with pushing people about

The goal of all ideologies – to become invisible. This seems poorly understood in contemporary political circles. In large part I blame Tony Blair. It was his strategy to redefine how the phrase ‘ideology’ would work in British politics. For him, a philosophy of change (as opposed to a philosophy of ‘ever more of the same’) is an ideology. A religious attachment to an entrenched belief system which your peers agree with is simply common sense.

But it isn’t. It is a lazy, ill-informed and meaningless redefinition of a crucial concept. Any guiding philosophy that seeks to describe the world in a coherent way is an ideology. People get all confused about this – the phrase isn’t meant to denote ‘wrong’ or ‘right’. Modern medicine is an ideology; indeed, science generally has broadly squeezed out religion as Europe’s prime guiding description of the planet. (The rise of neo-religion is something of a mirage – it may claim to guide moral choice but nine times out of ten even the religious call in an electrician or go to the doctor rather than pray their way out of it). Just think of ideology as ‘a consistent way of seeing’.

Why does it matter? Because almost all of the mainstream chatter about the ‘briefly-voluntary-then-compulsory’ work experience/cheap labour scheme has been bordered between two questions – does it work and is it fair? While this might seem reasonable, it misses an important point; the right always finds a reason to coerce the very poor in ways that deeply infringe their personal freedoms. It doesn’t matter whether it’s 1980s Latin American military dictators seeing their indigenous population as a barrier to control of the territory or a conservative Morningside pensioner complaining about beggars in the street; right-wing thinking always manages to come back to finding a reason for coercion.

The problem with the ‘technical’ debate on all these issues is that it fail to properly tie-up all the strands. Cameron simultaneously wants Iran to do what we tell it within a very narrow framework, poor people to work for nothing, civil liberties to take a back seat to national security, immigrants to be cuffed-and-deported, 16-year-old rioters detained for very long periods and so on. We should be quicker to ask the simple question ‘why are you always trying to coerce people and why do you always justify it in terms of setting an example?’.

It is the philosophy of the show trial (my view remains that most of the operation of the late-Soviet state held more in common with the right than with the left), the doctrine of the Klu Klux Klan lynch mob, the Daily Mail’s tough-on-crime fetish. And it all amounts to the same thing – visible signs of power over the weak reinforces social hierarchies. By bending the poor to our will we will show you how this country will be.

So by all means keep hammering Cameron’s gang for the blatant way they are handing Tesco cheap semi-forced labour. But don’t let them off the hook for the philosophical undercurrent that means they are always looking for someone weak to push about so we all get the message.

Robin McAlpine