Some arguments about the UK government's welfare reform programme - ... because they don't know what to do with people when they are working
- 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
4. … because they don’t know what to do with people when they are working
And yet the work still isn’t there. Falling unemployment is itself now an artefact of the welfare system as people are driven off benefits into Work Programme schemes or fake self-employment; actual employment is barely increasing at all (and in so far as it has increased, the increase is driven by more people staying on in employment than by people starting work). There is a slightly frantic quality to the constant invocation of work as the sole fitting aim to life, to the endlessly repeated story of the “hard working family” whose only function is to be the vehicle of a manufactured outrage against the supposedly idle. Our ruling class, and much of the left, appear to believe in a myth of meritorious, productive work, probably in a factory making useful widgets, established by an entrepreneur who works all hours to maintain his business and his loyal workforce. The actual experience of most work - even of inherently valuable work - is by contrast of layer upon layer of bureaucracy, deepening all the time, without apparent purpose or value but requiring more and more manic levels of activity from everyone trapped inside their job.
This suggests that capital, in the advanced, deindustrialised, economies, is experiencing a problem in reproducing the wage labour relationship on which it depends. There is nothing new of course in capitalism failing to provide full employment and relying on a reserve army of the unemployed to reduce wage pressure. What does look new is a certain difficulty they may be experiencing in persuading people that work, on all available terms and conditions, is actually the unqualified good it is supposed to be. In this difficulty capital is experiencing, once again but in a new form, the unforeseen consequences of its own development. If wage labour becomes unsustainable without state support, and if means testing then removes most or all of the benefits of work, then what’s so great about a job? If the need of capital for a deskilled, routinised labour denudes work, traditionally a source of pride and self-respect, of all meaning then why should anyone value it?
There is a purpose to the growing bureaucratisation of capitalist employment, the bullshit jobs, other than simply disciplining us all into mindlessness. The endless unread records, the risk assessments, the bills and invoices, the charges, the quality standards, the supervision records, the never-consulted policy documents are there to allocate and protect income streams and support the claims of individual capitals within the overall system (and if there are no privatised income streams in a given system as yet, then the procedures are in place to allow them later). The function of most human labour for capital is, increasingly if not yet completely, to generate the records and claims, to police the procedures and processes, to manage and manipulate the human raw material which are the origin of the employing capital’s return, rather than to produce use values. All with a compulsory smiling face.
Employment is not coming to an end anytime soon. And it is emphatically not the case that there is no useful role for human labour and creativity; indeed global warming is a collective crisis that will need the full commitment of billions to negotiate. But it is possible now to suggest that capitalism itself has exhausted the potential of the wage labour relationship and is pointing towards a destination beyond - even while capitalism’s rulers and ideologues dictate an ever more frenetic commitment to the virtues of work in the abstract.