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Punishment and coercion characterise the bourgeoisie's attitude towards the poor

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by Nick G.
It seems to be in the very genes of the rich that they can only rationalise the existence of the poor in terms of some fault or shortcoming in the latter. And because it is the fault of the poor that they are poor, punishment and coercion are required in dealing with them.
Bloody legislation against the expropriated
Marx wrote a fascinating account of such punishment and coercion in Chapter 28 of the first volume of Capital.
“The fathers of the present working class,” he said of people who had been forcibly thrown off the land at the end of the 15th and during the whole of the 16th centuries, “were chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers.  Legislation treated them as ‘voluntary’ criminals, and assumed that it depended on their own good will to go on working under the old conditions that no longer existed.”
He reports how, during the reign of Henry VIII, a law in 1530 provided that those who had no work due to age or incapacity should be issued with a beggar’s licence.  Those who were able-bodied but unable to find work were damned as vagabonds and “tied to the cart-tail and whipped until the blood streams from their bodies”.  A further piece of legislation condemned them to a repeat whipping and the slicing off of half the ear if they were caught idle a second time, and for a third offence, executed as a hardened criminal.
His successor, Edward VI, ruled in 1547 that “if anyone refuses to work, he shall be condemned as a slave to the person who has denounced him as an idler.”
“The master shall feed his slave on bread and water, weak broth and such refuse meat as he thinks fit. He has the right to force him to do any work, no matter how disgusting, with whip and chains. If the slave is absent a fortnight, he is condemned to slavery for life and is to be branded on forehead or back with the letter S; if he runs away thrice, he is to be executed as a felon. 
“The master can sell him, bequeath him, let him out on hire as a slave, just as any other personal chattel or cattle. If the slaves attempt anything against the masters, they are also to be executed. Justices of the peace, on information, are to hunt the rascals down. If it happens that a vagabond has been idling about for three days, he is to be taken to his birthplace, branded with a red-hot iron with the letter V on the breast and be set to work, in chains, in the streets or at some other labour.
“If the vagabond gives a false birthplace, he is then to become the slave for life of this place, of its inhabitants, or its corporation, and to be branded with an S. All persons have the right to take away the children of the vagabonds and to keep them as apprentices, the young men until the 24th year, the girls until the 20th. If they run away, they are to become up to this age the slaves of their masters, who can put them in irons, whip them, &c., if they like. Every master may put an iron ring round the neck, arms or legs of his slave, by which to know him more easily and to be more certain of him.”
Workhouses – “Poor Law Bastilles”
By the end of the 18th century the poor were being herded into Workhouses where they were put to work for 12 hours a day winding yarn and other dirty tasks.  Parish relief was provided to some as an act of charity, but the numbers of the poor soon exhausted this source of assistance.
Writing in 1845, in his Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels reported how: “They accordingly brought in the New Poor Law, which was passed by Parliament in 1834, and continues in force down to the present day. All relief in money and provisions was abolished; the only relief allowed was admission to the workhouses immediately built. The regulations for these workhouses, or, as the people call them, Poor Law Bastilles, is such as to frighten away everyone who has the slightest prospect of life without this form of public charity. 
“To make sure that relief be applied for only in the most extreme cases and after every other effort had failed, the workhouse has been made the most repulsive residence which the refined ingenuity of a Malthusian can invent. The food is worse than that of the most ill-paid working-man while employed, and the work harder, or they might prefer the workhouse to their wretched existence outside.
“Meat, especially fresh meat, is rarely furnished, chiefly potatoes, the worst possible bread and oatmeal porridge, little or no beer. The food of criminal prisoners is better, as a rule, so that the paupers frequently commit some offence for the purpose of getting into jail. For the workhouse is a jail too; he who does not finish his task gets nothing to eat; he who wishes to go out must ask permission, which is granted or not, according to his behaviour or the inspector’s whim; tobacco is forbidden, also the receipt of gifts from relatives or friends outside the house; the paupers wear a workhouse uniform, and are handed over, helpless and without redress, to the caprice of the inspectors.
“To prevent their labour from competing with that of outside concerns, they are set to rather useless tasks: the men break stones, “as much as a strong man can accomplish with effort in a day”; the women, children, and aged men pick oakum, for I know not what insignificant use. To prevent the “superfluous” from multiplying, and “demoralised” parents from influencing their children, families are broken up; the husband is placed in one wing, the wife in another, the children in a third, and they are permitted to see one another only at stated times after long intervals, and then only when they have, in the opinion of the officials, behaved well. And in order to shut off the external world from contamination by pauperism within these bastilles, the inmates are permitted to receive visits only with the consent of the officials, and in the reception-rooms; to communicate in general with the world outside only by leave and under supervision. “
Bosses never reconciled to workers’ win on welfare rights
The Poor Laws and associated Workhouse punishments remained in force until after World War 2 when the working class was strong enough to demand their replacement with welfare payments. 
However, the attitude of the bourgeoisie towards the poor whom their system creates remains one based on notions of punishment and coercion.
When a few misguided individuals took up Timothy Leary’s 1967 call to “drop out”, often at tax-payer expense, the bourgeoisie found a new gold-mine of ideological abuse to hurl at the genuinely unemployed.  The Bulletin raised the flag of battle in 1976 with its use of the term “dole bludger”, which is never very far from the lips of those fortunate enough to never require the dole.
Compulsory income management
The demonising of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities through the racist NT intervention introduced compulsory income management (CIM) as a coercive measure.  Implicit in this was the belief that ATSI people were to blame for the oppressive conditions that exist in many of their communities, that is, that they were underserving and squandered the benefits they were paid.
Great things were promised of CIM in the NT, and it has now been rolled out in “trials” in five low SES urban communities, the APY Lands in SA, and in parts of the Pilbara in WA.  This is despite various studies that have said that in the NT it was a disempowering control measure and that there was little evidence it was helping people.
Attacks on single parents
The same attitude is behind Gillard’s decision to move nearly 80,000 single parents from their insufficient Parenting Payment to the criminally low Newstart Allowance.  This represents a loss of around $100 per week to families in poverty, most of them headed by women.  
On numerous occasions, Gillard has described this reactionary measure as one designed to “provide an incentive to bring people back into the workforce”.  Others have described it as “designed to coerce”.
Following a complaint about this reactionary measure by the Australian Council of Social Services, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights and Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and practice wrote on 19 October 2012 to the Australian Government seeking an explanation of a decision it described as “threatening the enjoyment of human rights of some of the most marginalized and impoverished members of Australian society”.
Through centuries of struggle, the working class has forced the ruling class to modify and amend some of its vilest anti-poor practices, but measures like CIM and putting single parents onto Newstart illustrate that the ideological core of their contempt for the poor remains.
Barbara Shaw from the Mt Nancy town camp near Alice Springs has not been branded on the forehead, but she, and many ATSI people like her, feel the stigma of identification and branding by having to carry and use the BasicsCard of CIM.
The bourgeoisie, the class that rules capitalist society, will always push down on the working poor and the unemployed.
It really is in their genes.


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