The workfare state:enforcing the wages system

The changes which have taken place in what passes for welfare provision in Britain over the course of the last two decades were analysed in a book by Chris Grover and John Stewart, The Work Connection: The Role of Social  Security in British Economic Regulation,that came out in 2002. Largely inspired by Marxist economics, it represented a lucid  account of a domain where the harsheconomic realities of capitalist exploitation contradict the illusions of reformist politics.

  In many ways these illusions were fed by the extraordinary ideological success of the post-war Beveridge reforms, frequently presented as the triumph of half a century of reformist action led by Liberal, Labour
and – to a lesser extent – Tory administrations. Any remaining illusions are now being dissipated. What welfare
coverage and rights existed in the immediate post-war period are now being whittled away or simply done away with in order to more closely serve the form of capital accumulation which is now on the agenda. This new ‘inevitability of gradualism’ – to use the term adopted by the Webbs – means more exploitation and fewer rights of access to the means of subsistence for anyone unfortunate enough to have to try to find work for a living.

  There never was a golden age of the welfare state. The history of income maintenance in Britain has been the history of coercion, discipline and surveillance. As the first functioning capitalist country, England experienced the workhouse test, ‘less eligibility’ and the doctrine of ‘deterrent’.

  It’s still one of the most miserly and punitive ‘welfare systems’ in Western Europe, although the other European countries are now catching up. (New rules in France mean that workers on the dole have fewer rights to refuse poorly paid jobs, the same is happening in Germany and Spanish workers are forced to be more mobile in the search for work. Whether the government is right or left changes nothing.)

  However, now a new layer of social control has been added since the advent of British ‘workfare’, a policy loosely based on American precedents. In the past, maintaining labour discipline was a fairly simple task. Unemployment insurance benefits tended to be low compared to average wage rates. In a buoyant job
market, the only workers who wanted to stay on the dole for a long period were the genial layabouts of the claimants’ unions, people who were using benefits to finance studies on the sly, actors ‘resting’ between
roles and artists etc. In this situation, it was relatively easy to identify workers who were dodging work although, in practice, control procedures against the so-called ‘scroungers’ were not applied systematically.
Nobody really had an interest in staying on the dole for too long but some did, much to the horror of Daily Mail readers.

  The situation has now changed considerably. Successive governments have been trying to lower the wage
levels of unskilled and semi-skilled workers (so-called ‘entry-level’ jobs) putatively in order to combat inflation. American ideas about the so-called ‘underclass’ popularised in the highly toxic pseudo-sociology of Charles Murray have replaced the episodic scrounger-bashing campaigns orchestrated by the Tories in the 1970s and 80s. Thus, whereas in the past the unemployed (now known as ‘jobseekers’) could refuse offers of work which didn’t correspond to their levels of skill or even standard trade union rates, now they are hassled into poorly paid jobs as quickly as their legs can carry them. This, in itself, has a particularly depressing effect on wage levels especially in the more lowly-paid occupations.

  To make this process go even faster both Conservative and Labour administrations have introduced benefits to workers in low-paid jobs (in-work benefits) modelled on the Family Income Supplement set up in 1971 by the appalling Keith (later Sir Keith) Joseph, a Thatcherite bovver-boy and closet eugenicist. Officially,
in-work benefits provide incentives to unemployed people – pardon, ‘jobseekers’ – to take on poorly paid jobs and to leave the supposedly luxurious world of inactive welfare dependency. In actual fact, subsidies to low paid jobs tend to have a depressive effect on wages. Employers know that they can get the labour power
they need for less cash, the state stepping in to make up the difference. And of course, the increase in the number of workers coming onto the labour market increases supply and lowers price.

  All this continues unabated under New Labour, indeed, with many subtle and often cruel refinements. These include the fine combing of the population of the partially disabled and their gradual inclusion in the reserve army of labour and the particularly brutal treatment meted out to lone mothers. Of course, New Labour
has introduced the national minimum wage albeit on an extremely low level. But this only means that over the long-term the depressive forces working on wage levels will result in the legal minimum becoming the maximum paid out for unskilled work, the trade unions having been weakened by two decades of legal meddling.

  In the final analysis, welfare administration is really only the problem of policing the frontier between the reserve army of labour – people who are on hold for later exploitation – and the surplus population – people who are simply maintained at low cost outside of the labour market. ‘Labour market activation’ – the trendy term for these new policies – is really about making some formerly excluded workers available for a spot of exploitation. Social welfare policies don’t solve the underlying problem of capitalist exploitation. But then again who would ever look to the Labour Party or New Labour to solve that problem?


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