- Category: Analysis
- Published on Tuesday, 21 October 2014
- Written by Richard Atkinson
- Some arguments about the UK government's welfare reform programme
- 1. They are not trying (very hard) to reduce welfare expenditure
- 2. They do not want, at all, to reduce welfare dependency
- 3. They are not interested in getting people into work...
- 4. ... because they don't know what to do with people when they are working
- 5. They are not, exactly, aiming to abolish the welfare state
- 6. … not least because the present welfare state is their own, neoliberal, creation
- 7. They are converting the DWP into a punitive arm of the state
- 8. They are looking to create a low waged, unskilled, precarious workforce
- 9. They are enforcing a patriarchal discipline on women and families by means testing
- 10. They are winning ...
- 11. ... and Universal Credit will seal their victory for a generation
- 12. They have a problem with pensioners, which they have yet to sort out
- 13. Labour are as deeply committed to these aims as the Tories
- 14. Why it’s Welfare, not Social Security
- 15. Why it’s back to 1601 not 1834
- 16. No-one asked for welfare
- 17. Against welfare: for class independence
- ADDENDUM - On proposals for an Unconditional Basic Income.
- All Pages
15. Why it’s back to 1601 not 1834
Early modern welfare began in 1601 when the nascent English capitalist state introduced the first Poor Law and began the process of replacing private and Church provision with the ministrations of a secular state machine - a machine which created itself, at a local level in England, largely for and through this purpose. This settlement for the rural poor became firmly established, with remarkably little opposition, after the English Revolution. It became an essential element in dampening down what would otherwise have been the turbulent process of dispossession of the surviving peasantry and the establishment of a still largely rural working class disciplined to the wages system. It was able to root itself firmly in the new society, despite regular objections and disputes, because its costs - the poor rates - were administered in and through sections of the local ruling class who were able to establish certain perquisites and advantages for themselves in terms of subsidised labour and rents. And, incidentally, it warded off the intermittent famines still endemic in the rest of Western Europe.
By the early 19th century, developments within British capitalism mandated a new approach. The centre of capitalist development had moved to the cities and factories and it was now the urban working class that required discipline while rural Poor Law provision had become a drag on development. Step forward Edwin Chadwick, Bentham’s creature, to introduce the new, workhouse based, ideologically sound, drastically cut down Poor Law of 1834. Most of the ideology turned out to be fantasy and Chadwick himself was removed when inmates at the Andover workhouse, operating under his precepts, were found to be eating the rotting animal bones they were given to crush, but the New Poor Law survived riots and armed risings to enforce the mass transfer of rural labour to the new industrial cities and to terrorise generations to come.
There is a natural tendency therefore to see the Coalition’s premeditated war on welfare, launched in 2010 as the successor to, and through the prism of, Chadwick’s reforms 180 years earlier. And there is reason to suppose that Mr Duncan Smith, a vain man, is fully aware of the parallel and eager for a Chadwickian place in history. Nonetheless the outcome of the current war on welfare will be something much closer in spirit to the 18th century poor law, an extensive system accommodating ruling class needs at every level, than the minimal, workhouse based, 19th century version. We are not, in any literal sense, going back to the workhouse (workhouses, apart from anything else, were expensive). The Victorian ruling class, especially its industrial fraction, benefited from the 1834 Poor Law because it removed any floor to working class living standards and therefore licenced intensified exploitation while at the same time supplying the necessary workforce by forcing agricultural workers off the land. However they did not profit directly from its operations on any scale and all support for people in work was, in principle if not quite in practice, abolished. The 21st century settlement by contrast prioritises capital’s involvement at every point in the system through subcontracting its operations. It provides an extensive system of subsidies to rents and wages. It disciplines claimants into complying with mindless bureaucratic processes, which mimic those of capitalist employment. It subjects every element of support to an intensely intrusive and oppressive means test. These features are not incidental, not mistakes or policy failures. Private provision at every level, subsidies for rents and salaries, intrusive means testing and bureaucratic discipline are the very core and purpose of 21st century welfare’s New Speenhamland System.