Useless, or undervalued and stigmatised?

By Bernadette Meaden
August 11, 2012

On Radio Four’s The Life Scientific recently, geneticist Steve Jones explained how truly unique every person is: ‘Not only are we different from everybody else, we’re different from everybody who has lived, and ever will live.’

This appreciation of the uniqueness of every human being is in marked contrast to the way people are spoken about by politicians and economists.

The term, ‘economically inactive’ for instance, is used to refer to people who are neither employed nor actively seeking employment. They may be raising children, studying, caring for a sick relative, or just generally making the world a better place in their own unique way, but if they’re not a cog in the economic machine, they count for very little in the minds of many politicians and economists. Even more disparagingly, young people not engaged in employment, education or training have been dubbed ‘Neets’, always referred to in a negative way which serves to stigmatise them.

This dismissal of whole sections of society as comparatively worthless seems bad enough, but in a recent radio discussion about global population growth, the term ‘useless eaters’ was used. This chilling phrase is used by some people to refer to anybody who consumes resources without producing any. The Nazis referred to disabled people in this way – in German ‘Nutlos Esser’

This utilitarian or reductionist way of looking at individuals, who all have their own unique gifts and qualities, is very disturbing. If we value people only for the economic contribution they can make we are on a very slippery slope. Taken to its logical conclusion, why should we bother to care for anybody if they are, in economic terms, simply a drain on resources? There is no place for love in this philosophy.
Apparently, some economists are in favour of euthanasia as an answer to this perceived problem of ‘useless eaters’

In some quarters it seems that almost anything can be justified by reference to our allegedly dire economic situation, and the assertion that there just aren’t enough resources to go round. However, a recent report from the Tax Justice Network showed that there is £13 trillion stashed away in tax havens, which rather makes a mockery of the need for austerity. There is plenty of money in the world, it’s just not distributed correctly.

What we need is not austerity, which is punishing the poor for the mistakes of the rich, but a system in which resources are distributed more fairly, which is perfectly possible given the political will. As Ghandi said, ‘There is a sufficiency in the world for [humanity's] need but not for [humanity's] greed.’

The French government has taken a small step in the right direction, with the introduction of a 0.2 per cent financial transaction tax. Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici said it was “the first step toward fiscal reform and a move toward justice,”

David Cameron’s response was to invite any French financiers who wanted to avoid the new tax to move to London.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.

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