Weaponising workfare

Workfare recognises a reality that the TUC and many on the left haven’t – our current model of production, from a social perspective, is crumbling. Make workfare a weapon for change  by Arron Peters

Photo: www.billjosephphotography.com
Photo: www.billjosephphotography.com

The potential list of objectionable adjectives that have been extended to the medley of policies collectively understood as ‘workfare’ is, much like any credibility once invested in the present coalition government, indubitably nearing the point of expiry. Indeed workfare, and its present puppeteer the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith, are now not not only regarded as mad, bad and malicious but also thoroughly inept. Surely even ‘IDS’ thought the numbers, the returns on government ‘investment’ in awarding these deals to A4E and others would not be so precociously dreadful as to place the programs beyond the parameters of any credible defence?

The contribution of groups such as Boycott Workfare, DPAC and Solfed, among others, in discrediting workfare programmes is impressive. At the same time such a contribution has undoubtedly been embedded within a defensive approach that has come to characterize anti-austerity struggles throughout the OECD. At times, as with workfare, such a response can be impressive. The student movement of 2010 was similarly a defensive struggle but was nonetheless possessed of admirable flexibility, scale and intensity. The same is true, indeed to a greater extent, with the ultimately victorious Quebecois student movement of the last two years, impressively coordinated by Classe. Conversely the UK ‘pensions fightback’ by public sector unions in 2011, again essentially defensive, shared few if any of these qualities. This is for a variety of reasons and has nothing to do with the intelligence or integrity of those involved, nor the quantity or quality of legitimate grievances they possessed. Indeed for all its scale, tenacity and openness the UK student movement of 2010 likewise failed to achieve its objectives or indeed really catalyse a larger movement beyond itself – although in retrospect it undoubtedly undermined any credible argument the coalition could communicate about its ambition to ‘share’ the burden of austerity.

Responses such as the 2010 student movement and the backlash against workfare should have been fully expected. As welfare states and labour markets throughout the OECD are restructured over coming decade(s) in response to the Long Recession, defensive claims, objectives and strategies will almost inevitably be the basis from which action, successful or otherwise, will be catalysed. Is it sufficient to merely attempt to defend those post-war gains that have already been steadily eroded for three decades?

‘Tools as Weapons’ – How to Move From Defensive to Offensive Strategies?

The idea that a defensive stance should inform political action against austerity evokes approaches to warfare before the introduction of gunpowder to Europe during the 15th century. Until that point war had primarily been a defensive enterprise based around the topos of the city walls and the tactic of the siege, with defenders consequently enjoying a natural superiority. This remained the case until the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, a seismic moment in the history of warfare and European geopolitics. Although the role of Orban’s artillery can be overstated in the fall of Constantinople it’s centrality in Mehmet’s plans undermined a logic which stretched back to a time immemorial, best captured in the European imagination in both Homer’s ‘Iliad’ and Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’, the latter culminating with the sack of Troy after a decade long siege which was itself only broken through an act of supreme subtefuge, the ‘Trojan Horse’ proposed by Odysseus . Thus a map of city-states and empires with multiple levels of governance gave way to the modern European nation state, this being legislated most clearly in the Peace of Augsburg and later the Treaty of Westphalia.  The massively increased use of gunpowder after the 15th century and the ubiquity of musket and cannon on the battlefield had prodigious and enduring consequences for social organisation, as well as merely the cartography of Europe and the art of war.

This brief sketch of the relation between the gun, cannon, warfare and the arrival of the ‘modern’ nation-state to my mind helps clarify the words of Giles Deleuze when he wrote so provocatively on the most useful forms of ‘resistance’ within changing conditions of political power. ‘There is no need to fear or hope’ he wrote ‘but only to look for new weapons’. Here then the move from defensive to offensive orientation is more than simply a change in motion or an increase in the application of force. Instead such a move necessitates the discovery of new ‘weapons’ much as was the case with the introduction of the cannon with its far-reaching consequences for the entire social order of early modern Europe. In the context of contemporary anti-austerity struggles, which are by nature defensive, what does such cryptic language mean and how does it allow us to understand a terrain of defensive struggles as being imminent with possibility for offensive opportunity?

One answer might be found in a line from Hardt and Negri’s ‘Empire’ which they themselves borrow from a song by Ana Di Franco where she sings “Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right”. A synthesis of these two propositions, from both Deleuze and Di Franco, would identify that there is a need for new weapons in the face of fighting an ‘austerity’ that has no discernible horizon for the OECD and beyond, and that such weapons can perhaps themselves be forged from present tools even though they may currently reside in the hands of others with whom we are in political contestation. Such a dérive sounds both enigmatic and puzzling. What are its implications for the present predicament where every avenue of political action seems hostage to impossibility and the ambivalently disenchanted among us ask ‘What can be done, when nothing can be done?

‘The Future Doesn’t Work(fare)’ – Work, Workfare and Crisis

I have written previously of how the various programmes that constitute workfare should be regarded as the fulcrum of the coalition’s ‘industrial policy’. It is within such an understanding of workfare that Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) becomes a state-subsidy for large companies such as Tesco to employ essentially free labour rather than a temporary form of collective insurance designed for intermittent periods of unemployment, that would also act as a stabilizer on final demand throughout cyclical downturns, as was its original intention.

Numerous other measures such as freezing the minimum wage for under-21s, capping pay increases below inflation for public sector workers, the introduction of studio schools and the outsourcing of probation and prison labour could all play a role in wage repression in the United Kingdom over the coming years. The major factor however will prove to be a recalibration of the labour market ‘from below’. This will sometimes occur in partnership with trade unions as people accept diminished pay and working conditions to keep their job. Undoubtedly however it is workfare that will play a major role in disincentivising the claiming of JSA and is central in the ‘self-management’ of a massive decline in pay and working conditions. Elsewhere ‘sanctioning’ or purposeful inefficiency in the benefits system is, unofficially of course, deployed in order to ‘incentivise’ people back into work. According to the Trussell Trust ending up at the local foodbank is a more likely outcome than receiving a paycheck however and they estimate that 43% of all those referred to food banks are there because of benefit stoppages or the refusal of a crisis loan.

Workfare is a policy tool to recompose the UK labour market. However it is also clear that within workfare programs there is a kernel of truth which is neglected within the analysis of social democrats and those on the centre-left. It is unequivocally motivated by political spite and class hostility. More importantly however we must also understand it as a policy response to changed conditions of production (which themselves are a response to the as yet unsolved and merely deferred crisis of the mid-1970s) which will not disappear and will only continue to intensify. Such an admission is founded as much on the work of Ulrich Beck as it is on any analysis that stems from a Marxian understanding of the ‘secular crisis’.

As has been pointed out elsewhere the TUC ‘likes work’.Consequently a future that ‘works’ is a future that would presumably embody the policy prescriptions of the TUC as legislated by a future Labour government. The basis of such prescriptions are easily discernible to anyone who has seen the logo from last October’s  TUC demonstration. On holding the pamphlet issued by the TUC that accompanied the day, ‘A Future That Works’ , one’s gaze is impulsively drawn to the three Atlas-like human figures that adorn the front cover as they harmoniously return a declining and unnamed macroeconomic indicator back towards the celestial aether of ‘growth’. Camus once remarked that Sisyphus must have been happy as ‘the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart’ and one can only presume the author of this report holds similar sentiments. Our collective capitulation to the role of Sisyphus is not only one of necessity but is in fact a social mission capable of being endowed with the same libidinal investment and ethical content of Harold Wilson’s ‘moral crusade’ of five decades ago. Work, poorly paid work, is the only ethical imperative the Labour party is offering as a ‘future’ within the context of an economic crisis unparalleled in over seven decades and a decimated welfare state.

It is no surprise therefore that as a counter-measure to workfare the TUC proposes that ‘every young person who is unemployed for more than six months (receives) a job that pays at least the minimum wage, or quality training’. Alongside this measure, Labour have more recently proposed that every adult aged over 25 and out of work for more than two years should be obliged to take up a government-provided job for six months or lose benefits. Note that this was first suggested by ‘Open Left’, a project run by Demos and overseen, albeit at a distance by James Purnell as early as 2009. In both cases such suggestions are at odds with the ‘commitment’ of both the TUC and the Labour party to the marginally higher ‘living wage’. What is more, both programs would appear to operate much like existing workfare programs in acting as an instrument of downward wage repression and facilitating the recomposition of the UK labour market. Amid escalating food inflation, declining real pay and unaffordable rents and travel costs such a carrot appears not only small but thoroughly rotten. Even an ass would find it unappetising.

If we understand workfare as a policy response to the ‘secular crisis’ then it should come as no surprise that the first mention of ‘workfare’ by President Nixon in 1969 is correlative with a major downturn in US corporate profitability. Within this context of the secular crisis any return to unemployment benefit previously understood as of periodic necessity within the post-war welfarist context is impossible. Such an understanding of unemployment benefit remains from a period when the UK did not see unemployment exceed 2.6% for two and a half decades (1945-1970). These conditions did not exist either before and they have not existed since.

Workfare, Surplus Population and Secular Crisis

A discussion of surplus population is central to any enquiry as to the relationship between workfare and the secular crisis. The hypothesis runs that within the contemporary global economy there is a large and growing ‘surplus population’ that is incapable of accessing the labour market. Alongside this group is another yet larger

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