Monthly Archives: February 2012

Is workfare slavery?

Social networking platforms have exploded with howls of outrage over the latest workfare scandal; I would imagine that real-life face-to-face conversations have done the same, but cannot confirm this due to not getting out of the house enough. The specifics of the case are that Tesco were caught advertising night shift positions with a “wage” of “JSA + Expenses” on the Jobcentre Plus website [Edit: Link now dead - presumably the advert has been pulled or expired]. John Harris, who has a good track record on unemployment-related reporting has written a great piece for Comment is Free that really puts this case into its current affairs context. I’m sure I couldn’t do this job better myself. Why bother writing this article then? Well, what I can do is put it into a much broader human-historical and theoretical context. That is, after all, what us Marxian philosophers are supposed to be good at.

Specifically I want to address the question of whether these ‘workfare’ schemes are a form of slavery, or at least reasonably comparable to slavery; many people have been throwing the term around, but some people have suggested that we shouldn’t be doing this. I don’t think it’s unreasonable or inappropriate, and I want to explain why. This article will include some discussion of violence, including sexual violence, and other intensely unpleasant and immoral practices, in case that isn’t obvious already. Also, it’s going to be largely historical lecture/analysis, so the first part might be a bit dry.

What is workfare?

Before anything else, I should outline the concept of ‘workfare’ for those unfamiliar with it. Essentially, it describes policies that enforce mandatory unpaid labour upon unemployed people. Workfare means the withdrawal of benefits if you do not accept the work assigned to you, but nothing more than your usual benefits if you do accept the work. This is the sense in which it is unpaid – you continue to receive the normal welfare payments that you would have been entitled to had you not been offered the work at all, but they are now conditional on performing the work where previously they were a basic entitlement.

In the UK this has been implemented in the form of at least two schemes. One, mandatory work activity, is absolutely compulsory if you want to avoid the withdrawal of your Job Seeker’s Allowance; the other, work experience placements, are technically opt-in (though a lot of pressure may be put on jobseekers to opt in), but cannot then be opted back out of after the first week. Essentially, you cannot decide that a placement is not working for you for any reason, and you must persist or else have your eligibility for benefits withdrawn. The opt-in nature of the placements and the restrictions on opting-out have sometimes gone unexplained to the jobseeker offered a placement.

Mandatory work activity is supposed to be of benefit to the community, and was spun as being charity volunteering and so on, but concerns have been raised about whether this has always been the case. Concerns have also been raised about the gender and race profile of those forced into this scheme, with ethnic minorities making up a larger proportion of those on mandatory work activity than those on optional work experience placements.

North American Black slavery

The type of slavery most people are familiar with is that practised in North America between the 16th and 19th centuries. This was probably one of the most cruel, brutal, violent and horrifying human practices to date. It is, in a sense, morally comparable with genocide – the main (perhaps sole) reason it stopped short of actual mass extermination was the potential for profit. Under these arrangements, white slave-owners could expect to get away with extreme negligence or violence, and this might extend to the point of rape or murder. In many cases sexual violence was used against female slaves by the slave-owners or their relatives, who then carried their children, and so on. It is difficult to overstate the morally revolting nature of this form of slavery and the practices associated with it.

It’s easy to see why people might be sensitive to the usage of the word ‘slavery’ when it brings to mind such a vivid, horrible and extreme image. Regular readers of this blog and people who know me personally will know that I have no particular affection for Trotsky. I will, however, quote him on this occasion as one of the few very good things he said is highly relevant here: “To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be… these are the rules”. Calling workfare ‘slavery’ may well conjure up unpleasant associations and seem like an over-reaction, but this is to let the deeply affective cultural memory of historically located practices eclipse a sober analysis of the social relations at hand. To understand why the diagnosis of workfare as akin to a form of slavery might be entirely accurate, we need to look at other concrete forms of slavery.

Roman slavery

Counter-intuitively, earlier forms of slavery were often less brutal than that we have already looked at. In Rome, for instance, slaves increasingly gained legal protections that allowed them to file complaints if their master mistreated them and protected them from execution without trial. Eventually the voluntary freeing of slaves by their owners became so common that the state attempted to legally regulate it so as to preserve slave stocks. Admittedly freeing did not mean that much in the context of Roman slavery, since even once freed an ex-slave did not become a true citizen, but rather a member of a distinct class of a lower legal status than citizens, and was still subject to (less stringent) labour requirements. Children of former slaves escaped this special class, having full citizenship status (whereas children of current slaves were born into slavery, as in the North American system).

Perhaps most importantly in relation to workfare, Romans practised a form of slavery in which individuals could be owned not by other individuals but by Roman society as a whole. They might be employed as servants to elected officials in the duties of their office, but they might also be accountants or secretaries. A slave of this kind was known as a servus publicus – literally a public servant, a slave of the body politic. Interestingly, it was not only the public servants who were given relatively important and skilled jobs – some privately-held slaves were employed as teachers, doctors, domestic accountants, barbers, etc. One of the reasons for this was that previously educated or skilled people could become enslaved through debt and other methods, so slavery was not merely the preserve of those seen as ‘animalistic’, ‘barbarian’ or ‘sub-human’; slaves may have previously been free citizens of some standing.

Generally speaking we can say that in Roman society, especially in later periods, slavery was a truly class-based cleavage within society. Slaves in the later Roman Empire were recognised as thoroughly human, even if they did occupy an inferior social status. Some were given positions of responsibility and were able to earn recognition for their skilled public servitude. Some had good opportunities to earn their own money, and many achieved manumission through the good will of their owners or the public bodies in which they worked. Domestic slaves, though by no means lavished with luxury, might reasonably expect to live in better conditions than poor free citizens.

All of this paints a very different picture from the previous discussion of North American slavery. If I had to give an explanation for this, I would suggest that slavery in Rome was based on class power in its own right. By contrast, I would propose that the African slave trade and the Black slavery it created in North America was first and foremost a question of race power – slavery was a weapon that presented the content of racial oppression in the form of class oppression. The system of Black slavery has as many parallels in Nazi solutions to ‘The Jewish Question’ as it does in prior historic forms of slavery; it used segregation, demonisation, dehumanisation, brutal violence, and killing by force or overwork or neglect.

Greek slavery

Having considered Roman slavery, let’s take a look at the Greek model (which likely formed a huge influence over the Roman system). Once again the system changed over time, but generally slaves had a greater legal status than in the ‘classic’ case of North American slaves of African origin. Slaves could – at least in certain periods – own property, including land, and some had a status almost equal to citizens. In most Greek cities, a citizen that killed a slave (including their own) could expect to be severely punished, and could even face the death penalty themselves; if someone killed your slave you would not claim for damages due to their status as property, but pursue punishment due to their status as a human. Athenian law protected slaves from being beaten and Athenian culture generally demanded less diffidence and deference from slaves than in other systems, with citizens tolerating argument, etc. In other city-states the treatment of slaves was much harsher and their social and legal position was significantly worse.

Slavery in Sparta was analogous to the later servi publici – rather than being based on individual chattel ownership, the bulk of slaves were state-owned and were assigned to citizens while remaining common property. In keeping with general Spartan ideology, this class of slaves (known as Helots, and distinct from privately-owned slaves) were treated very poorly indeed. There is debate, but generally historians seem to agree that Helots could be killed with impunity at least at a certain time in the year, and that the attitude of Spartan citizens towards Helots was utterly contemptuous at best. On one occasion, the Helots were asked to nominate for manumission those who had best proved their bravery, capability, wits, and so on. 2,000 Helots volunteered themselves and were summarily slaughtered on the grounds that those with that much confidence in themselves were likely to be the most seditious and rebellious.

Similarly to the Roman economy, Greek slaves were not restricted to hard manual labour or domestic service and could practice a craft or profession, though most were employed in agriculture, mining and so on (this also was true of the Roman economy – the accountants and so on may not have been exceedingly rare but they were certainly the minority). They were sometimes forced into arrangements somewhat reminiscent of modern wage-employment, although it would probably be overstating the case to call these arrangements proto-capitalist. On the one hand, slaves could be hired out to other citizens as labourers, generating a profit for the owner. Conversely, some Greek slaves lived independently of their owners as traders, bankers, etc, merely paying a king of ‘tax’ to their owners. Slaves might earn enough to buy their emancipation in this way.

 It’s worth pointing out that as well as the common prohibitions on violence in the form of beating or killing, it was generally illegal to rape a slave (including your own) in Greece. There is an exception to the rule in that some male slaves were forced to work in brothels. Apart from this forced prostitution, the injunction against rape was widespread and in theory was strict, even if it could be broken with relative impunity due to minor punishments in some city states. Conversely, slave women could be raped with impunity in many American States (by White slave-owners or Black slaves or both) not because of minor punishments but because no such offence was even legally recognised. Greek law recognised the slave as having a basic degree of sexual autonomy and raping a slave was legally equivalent to raping a citizen; North American society generally considered Black women to be ‘unrapeable’ – even in the states that technically prohibited it, no jurors would convict a rapist, particularly if he was White and the owner of the slave in question. This even extended as far as child rape in some cases, with the Black rapist of a 10-year-old Black girl being allowed to go free on the grounds that there simply was no offence on the statute books or in common law that could conceivably be brought to bear against him.

Aztec slavery

A final example that’s really alien to our received notion of slavery – the Aztec model. In Aztec society, the children of slaves were born free, and slaves could free themselves in various ways. Firstly there was the traditional route of buying freedom, but there were also options such as proving mistreatment; running away was actually a legally recognised form of emancipation under some circumstances too, typically by taking flight in the market place and fleeing the city walls in order to step on some human poop, which was then presented to a judge as proof of the slave’s full escape. I have no idea why poop equals freedom, but apparently this made sense to Aztecs. Then again, as I understand it, they were constantly worrying about whether the sun was going to come up, so I’m not going to try to get into their mindset on this one.

You could also become a slave in quite unusual ways, such as by trying to prevent the flight of a slave whose owner you were not related to, or by selling yourself into slavery (in which case you were given some time to spend the proceeds and enjoy your freedom before entering servitude. Slaves typically had to give consent to their sale in order to change owners and could marry and own property, including slaves of their own.

Slaves could generally not be sacrificed, though this was reserved as a punishment for those who had been sufficiently unruly, but the legal mechanism protecting them was stringent enough that I find it hard to believe many ever broke it. An owner would have to publicly prove three times, using three different instructions, that a slave was disobedient before they could be sold against their will, and a slave had to be sold in this manner three times before they were fair game for sacrifice; one wonders how many citizens were willing to buy a slave that had already been publicly proven to be disobedient on six occasions to 2 other owners, and therefore how many slaves ever made it to the third such sale. The exception to this was slaves captured as a result of war, who could be taken as prisoners specifically for the purposes of sacrifice.

Aztec seems remarkably merciful for a culture that regularly cut people’s hearts out. Here we have a system of slavery in which you can’t be killed except as punishment for severe disobedience, you can’t be mistreated or else you will be granted your freedom, you can run away to freedom and only your owner will bother to stop you, you can own your own property and have your own family, and you can’t even be sold against your will except as a punishment. This is a totally different type of system to the North American model. Once again, it is a question of class, not caste or race – there is social mobility in the slave class, slaves are significantly protected because of their recognised common humanity, and so on.

Slavery as a generic system

Having looked at several varieties of slavery, we should not understand the term as referring to a concrete historically-situated phenomenon, but rather as a universal/generic term, referring to a set containing various sub-categories.  We might even consider it to include penal hard labour or indentured servitude, but I won’t address these here. Slavery takes significantly different forms in different societies. To draw a comparison between slavery and workfare, therefore, is not to suggest that workfare shares all of the significant features of North American slavery.

Despite the racial imbalance between the two schemes that weighs more heavily in favour of ethnic minority jobseekers being forced into work, workfare – at least in the UK – is clearly not based on race power. It is not fundamentally a system used to segregate and significantly dehumanise in a similar way that Nazi propaganda did to Jews. I don’t think even the most ardent tory would consider the unemployed to be literally sub-human or non-human, or suggest that they were less evolved than those with paid employment, or that they lacked a soul that others had (plenty of people may, of course, think jobseekers don’t have a soul, but this is probably due to them being non-religious rather than to prejudice).

When we compare workfare to forms of slavery found in ancient societies, however, there is a more apt analogy. The position occupied by those on mandatory work activity is similar to that of certain types of slaves, and the basic social relations of slavery may be a useful and appropriate model for understanding workfare in the modern world. Drawing on a few of the features we have noted about specific forms of slavery, we can point out parallels with the servi publici or Helots, with the Greek slaves hired out as labourers by their owners, with the legal protections in place in some slave-holding cultures, and so on.

Parallels between workfare and slavery

A workfare labourer, like a slave, has certain legal rights and protections due to their basic humanity – the right to their own family life, the right to own property, freedom from corporal and capital punishment or other mistreatment, etc. Some of these rights are not available in most slave-holding systems, true. However, they did exist in some systems, so the lack of these freedoms is not a necessary condition for slavery.

A workfare labourer, like a slave, may theoretically be able to escape to freedom (in the form of emigration, for instance) or earn their freedom (by getting a better job somehow or setting up their own business or the like). But most of them will be stuck with no realistic way out due to their material conditions.

A workfare labourer, like a slave, is subordinate to the entity that controls their labour, in this case the state. The state is sovereign and has a monopoly on legitimised force – just as a slave cannot overrule their master or attack their master, the unemployed cannot realistically refuse or challenge the state, they must obey or else face destitution.

A workfare labourer, like a Helot, works at the behest of the state and receives a pittance in return from the state. Like a Helot, the unemployed must be economically obedient to the state in order to receive their means of subsistence.

A workfare labourer, like some Greek slaves, is ‘hired out’ to private firms for the purpose of generating profits for the employer; the benefit to the state is not identical to the benefit to the Greek slave-owner, but it exists. Consider, for instance, the political capital involved in running ‘successful’ workfare schemes, or the increased tax receipts that will follow from the increased profits of the firms involved in the schemes.

Most importantly, we can see a common logic to the structure of workfare and the underling common themes of slavery. The individual in question is forced to provide unpaid labour by an entity with the monopoly of legal power, economic power and legitimised violence in the relationship. The individual in question has little or no autonomy in how their labour is employed (in fact, some Greek or Roman slaves would have had substantially more autonomy in the employment of their labour power than many workfare scheme participants). The individual in question may theoretically be able to accumulate wealth and eventually emancipate themselves in some form, but is realistically unlikely to achieve this. The individual in question need not be performing back-breaking physical labour or domestic service, and they may even land a fairly enjoyable or skilled role, but most people in their position will be working in the bottom rungs of the contemporary economy.


I’m not arguing here that workfare is actually a set of social relations identical to a historical form of slavery or anything that extreme and specific. All I will say is that we can see from the above substantial cause for comparing the position of someone forced to work for free stacking shelves in order to receive a pittance more or less equivalent in value to the material necessities of life with the position of someone forced to work for free sowing seeds in order to receive the material necessities of life. It isn’t unreasonable, when we take a broad and cross-cultural historical view, to compare workfare to slavery.

I don’t think many people drawing the analogy here are genuinely trying to suggest that workfare involves the same power relations and holds the same cultural meaning as Black slavery on the plantations. What they are really saying is that slavery is a basic economic concept – the idea of forced, unpaid labour inflicted on an individual by an entity that stands in a position of extreme dominance over them. The note that historically the term ‘slavery’ has been applied to many other contexts dissimilar to the presumed-paradigm case of North American slavery is not merely to point to a precedent for this usage of the word, but is precisely to reinforce this argument that ‘slavery’ is a fairly universally-recognised and universally-applied concept which is, at bottom, free of ties to any specific historical period or class structure or racial divide.

I may not agree with some of the uses of the term, but I can recognise the political importance of identifying hyper-exploitative social relations or hypo-autonomous working conditions as slavery-like. For instance, the Wages for Housework movement combined the concepts of ‘wage slavery’ and ‘domestic slavery’ in one fell swoop: “slavery to an assembly line is not liberation from slavery to the kitchen sink”. Regardless of whether you agree with them, this was clearly a politically significant development in the women’s liberation movement and the socialist movement. Workfare is clearly not based on a brutal system of white supremacy, where rape and lynching is deemed acceptable and the labourers are deemed sub-human animals. It is, however, a hyper-exploitative system of class power and conflict, where workers find themselves in conditions of diminished autonomy and the general value of labour is driven down.

It is no more distasteful, unacceptable or inaccurate to draw relevant comparisons between workfare and slavery than it is to refer to forced sterilisation as genocide – yes, it is a term that these days is associated more with extermination of the already-living, but technically genocide simply means an attempt to wipe out an ethnic or national group, and this can be enacted by preventing any future generations being born too. Yes, slavery is a term associated with kidnapping people from Africa and whipping, but this is not all it means and is not the only form that it can take. It is important to acknowledge what workfare represents for taxpayers, who are essentially paying the wages of people they aren’t employing (that are often generating profits for other private firms).

It is even more important to acknowledge what workfare means for the working class; it is unacceptable that in the 21st century people will be coerced by the threat of absolute poverty and destitution to work without pay (often for the private gain of others), driving down wages for those already in work and contracting the supply of real jobs available for others seeking work. I will leave it up to the reader to decide if workfare ‘is’ slavery, but I propose that there are certainly striking and unavoidable similarities that merit attention and criticism.


Filed under Current Affairs, Economics, Labour History, Uncategorized