Some arguments about the UK government's welfare reform programme - Against welfare: for class independence
- 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
17. Against welfare: for class independence
It is the position of welfare in the class struggle, at this particular point in history, not abstract principles, that should decide for the left the main positions to adopt. Quoting Marx’s description of full communism - “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” - as though it were a prescription for 21st century welfare does not actually get us very far. If Mr Duncan Smith had the penchant for ideological mischief making of a Michael Gove he would have adopted Marx’s dictum as the inspiration for Universal Credit since it is, when misapplied in this context, nothing other than a description of a completely means tested benefit system. Perhaps another ideologue of the right, Richard Milhous Nixon, did just that when arguing for his abortive Family Assistance Programme in 1970:
“It provides help to those in need and in turn requires that those who receive help work to the extent of their capabilities”
If, by contrast, we pay attention to Poor Law history, if we respect the attitudes of people subjected to its various systems, if we think about the actual experience of coming under the protective wing of the capitalist state, if we attach as much or more importance to the power relationships involved in welfare provision as to its equity and form, then I think certain conclusions follow. (We might even derive similar conclusions from actually reading and thinking about the “Critique of the Gotha Programme” rather than just citing one of its concluding rodomontades).
I suggested above that the British working class has rarely sought a welfare solution for its needs. There are some apparent exceptions (which however merely serve to confirm the centrality of independence and hatred of state domination).
In July 1921 the Wandsworth Poor Law Guardians announced the suspension of all ‘outdoor’ relief, forcing all applicants into the workhouse. Members of the newly formed National Unemployed Workers Movement responded by a mass application for admission to the workhouse. When the Guardians agreed, as they had to, the workhouse was soon effectively occupied, the food improved, discipline and segregation defied and, eventually, the red flag raised over the building. Within a week the guardians had restored the status quo ante. This was the first of many collisions between the Communist Party dominated NUWM and the Poor Law authorities culminating in the Birkenhead riots of 1932, as the great historical movements of English capital and insurrectionary proletarianism collided. Always the NUWM demands were for the absolute right to relief, against any exercise of discretion by the Poor Law Guardians. In other words the NUWM and others were trying to refashion the Poor Law into a system of rights and entitlements that allowed claimants a degree of independence.
The same theme can be found in the welfare rights movement which began in the 1960’s USA, the revolutionary decade, and was uneasily transplanted to the UK from the mid 1970’s: fixed rates; an end to discretion and conditions; no to sex snooping and midnight raids to uncover cohabiting mothers; legal entitlements. The struggle was always about power as much as money, in much the same way as it was for the factory shop stewards movement of the 60’s and 70’s in the UK.
The US welfare rights movement is magnificently documented in Regulating the Poor (1971 and 1993) by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, and is one of the very few radical political works on welfare. Piven and Cloward’s central argument - that welfare provision in the USA fluctuated in response to the levels of popular resistance, especially in the ghettos, is surely right for the USA. But it omits the UK experience, where neoliberalism took a different line - Regan cut back welfare; Thatcher expanded it. Welfare provision can grow as a result of popular mobilisation; its expansion can also be a deliberate ruling class strategy to demobilise and demoralise a previously combative working class.
The German experience has other lessons. Bismarck's Germany was the very first capitalist state to introduce a modern social security system, in the late nineteenth century - and this was quite explicitly conceived as a rejoinder to the growing movement of the industrial working class, organised under the SPD. When this was not enough parts of the still fairly disjointed German state (but not Prussia itself) then attempted to incorporate the workers’ party into the state’s welfare system - SPD representatives were either consulted on or actually ran the social security system. This corporatism of course became habitual in Germany and the tradition was maintained by both the Nazis and the post war government; but the early attempts in that direction were likely to have played their part in the rise of reformism within the SPD and the disaster of August 1914.
On the same theme it is notable that Poor Law Overseers and Guardians were always elected in England. From 1895 the elections were by universal suffrage, with votes for women and no property qualifications - by 1909 there were 1,300 female Guardians in office. There was some slow amelioration in work house rules and conditions, perhaps as a result, but no dramatic changes.
Pulling together this very skimpy patchwork of examples and trying to draw out some principles for a socialist approach to welfare:
- every trace of charity and discretionary welfare, every Poor Law residue, every suggestion of state benevolence and pity - which can always become control and punishment without notice - must be opposed. We must first demand, then establish, absolute rights in every field of subsistence;
- we should reject the idea that participation in the capitalist labour market is the only form of meaningful productive activity and a uniquely desirable goal; demands for ‘work’ at all costs should go - they no longer fit the reality of capitalist employment, often empty of all social benefit, nor the needs of a working class more varied in its social and physical makeup;
- we have no interest in administering a welfare system which should be automatic as far as possible - perfectly possible for all payments of money or credit. Experience suggests that participation in such a system merely elevates a small minority into a bureaucracy, whose values they then internalise;
- any system we promote should be, as far as possible, universal, not a special arrangement for poor people which will inevitably be poorly and oppressively administered, derogatory and stigmatising. It is essential that the rich are forced to claim welfare;
- a future welfare system will have to be based on individual entitlement for adults - not a household based system like all current means tested benefits. Not to do this merely perpetuates a whole range of inequalities and oppressions within the household;
- but a socialist welfare must go hand in hand with the widest possible extension of free provision - transport, childcare, access to computers and communication networks, housing, social care must all join health care as free goods - with the aim in time of reducing the necessity for free money.
These are deliberately immodest proposals. Times like the present, when welfare is not simply under ruling class attack, but is itself the means of that attack, are not propitious for tinkering. We have to be able to turn their weapons against them. We can reverse the political meaning of ‘benefit dependency’ - that is their project, we want independence. We can start to insist that benefits and tax are a single process, not two separate ones, with outcomes disturbing to any number of misconceptions. We can build up an integrated understanding of benefits, nationality and the movement of labour - immigration and emigration - to counter the racists (albeit not from this essay from which these essential features are missing). And we can fight their assault on welfare all the more effectively if we have an understanding of our own alternative.