I often think of Sisyphus when the Conservatives bang on about their favourite topic – hard working people. Sisyphus was the Greek king condemned by the gods to roll a rock to the top of a mountain only to see it roll back down, over and over again.
That’s exactly what the Con-Dems have got in store for us, a life of endless toil that gets us absolutely nowhere. We spend the bulk of our wages paying off our bills each month, only to find we have to do it over and over again. And to make sure we keep our shoulders to the wheel, new and fiendish ways are found to plunge us even further into debt.
The government’s recent help to buy mortgage scheme immediately springs to mind. Rather than launch a social house building programme to solve the acute housing shortage as their predecessors in the Tory party did in the ’50s and ’60s, they’ve come up with a scheme to further boost demand by offering a small mortgage subsidy.
A number of mainstream economists are already warning that this will fuel a housing bubble, which when it bursts will leave those who have taken advantage of the intervention to get on the property ladder with even more of a liability.
This brings me to another Greek myth, the 12 Labours of Hercules. These days, getting a roof over one’s head is a veritable Herculean task for the average youngster, not to mention getting into higher education beforehand. Let’s face it, with tuition fees at £9,000 a year and house prices so high that the buzz word ‘affordable’ has become a joke, the reward is debt that will last a lifetime. This of course is only the beginning.
What’s the alternative? For the government there is no alternative except to be demoted from “striver” to “scrounger”. For that is how ministers, with the backing of the Fourth Estate, have managed to demonise the unemployed, including the tens of thousands who have had the misfortune of being made redundant as a result of the so-called austerity. As the bedroom tax makes clear, those on benefits are treated like sh*te, with no effort spared to make their lives as difficult as possible.
So the message is – get a job, whether it is on zero hours contract, whether it pays less than a living wage, whether you are overqualified for it, whether you can be sacked for taking too many toilet breaks. The point is, it is a job at least.
And so like zombies we march off to work for far longer hours than in Europe’s powerhouse, Germany. The trick has been to make it seem that there is something virtuous in all this hard work. I am old enough to remember how in the ’80s there was serious talk of the possibility of only having to work a three-day week because of automation and new technology, and still be paid enough to maintain a good standard of living.
The idea of people being free to take life at a leisurely pace, or spend more time with the family, would make the likes of works and pension minister Iain Duncan Smith, the man responsible for turning the screw on welfare claimants, choke on his caviar. These days with the pensionable age being pushed further and further forward, we are expected to work till we drop dead and still feel grateful about it.
The fetishisation of work has even led to one government official recently complaining that civil servants lost three days a year waiting for their computers to boot up in the morning because of too slow IT systems. He’s only talking about machines, mark you.
The ultimate aim of the government’s austerity programme is to create an army of cheap and flexible labour that will do as its told, when its told. Anyone unwilling or unable to participate in this faces life on the scrap heap.
The rest face a mountain of debt as we try to provide ourselves with the very basics of life amid a rapidly rising cost of living and diminishing wages. Welcome to the world of Sisyphus.