Saturday 7 December 2013

On 'entitlement culture'

It is a familiar leitmotif of conservatives of a neoliberal bent everywhere these days: 'The feckless poor and their sense of entitlement, this is what is sending the world to hell in a handbasket!  These people think they have a right to a roof over their heads and bread in their bellies.  We makers, we Galts cannot take this any longer.  No, alas, we cannot afford the takers of this world such luxuries any more.  Every tile and every crust must be earned and if you are a failure - not my problem, son.  Global race, competitiveness, tightening belts [yadda yadda yadda...]'.

The usual response to this attack on the 'entitlements' of the poor (or rather the non-rich) is a more or less humanist one: 'How dare you?!  Every human being has a right to food, shelter and dignity!  You conservatives with your evil ideology have no respect for your fellow humans.  You reduce humanity to lines on a spreadsheet!  You absolve yourself from the most basic kinds of compassion!' and so on.  This response is entirely inadequate.  What is so sad about the 'entitlement culture' trope is the fact that all the poor seem to feel 'entitled' to is food and shelter - if that.

It is not that people feel too entitled, it is that they do not feel entitled enough.

This response doesn't rely upon any universal, given, abstract human value that must be defended on behalf of the feckless poor by an articulate, representative intellectual class.  Instead it places the emphasis upon stoking the agencies of the poor (or the non-rich) themselves, making them the enfired agents of their own defence - agents of their own entitlement.

If there is a road to an alter-humanism this is it.  Humanism sets us into a box adorned with certain brass plaques that we can only point at and insist 'No, but look!  We are humans, we deserve dignity!'.  Another humanism must insist that human beings are capable of insisting upon their own entitlements - that human beings have no need of being entitled as Human Beings endowed with Dignity from on high.  And yet the term 'anti-humanism' seems to detract from the absolute imperative of insisting.  It is not enough to be against, one must also be for.

'Entitlement' is a conservative trope that must be turned on its head - or perhaps set on its feet.