Tag Archives: Labour Party

Workfare: doesn’t work, not fair.

by Anne Archist

So, the workfare debate has remained in the headlines since my last post on it… That’s interesting, as I didn’t think there would be quite this much public anger over the proposals – if anything, I thought most people would just ejaculate DailyMailisms in the direction of anyone who dared to question a system of transitory, mandatory, unpaid labour. The government has been in a right flap over the campaign against workfare, resorting to a whole host of amusing tactics, with some degree of cooperation from third parties. I’ll give a run-down of some of the controversy with relevant links, and then move onto the question of the government’s real misdirection tactics.

A comedy of ostriches

First there was the hilarious claim by Chris Grayling that the SWP had “hacked” his email account. Apparently he told the Daily Mail that “‘Somebody used my email address to lodge a formal complaint with Tesco. This campaign has got fake activity”. He also told the BBC: “Let me give you an example, my own e-mail address was hacked by this organisation and used to lodge a complaint with Tesco, so I don’t accept the scale of the campaign is very large “. This was given short shrift, and he toned it down to the bizarre and vague assertion that his account had been “used in the campaign”.

After that nonsense, there was the question of Datasift research into the debate. Newsnight’s article on workfare suggested that the research had measured the hashtag #welfaretowork; if this is in fact the case, they are obviously idiots because most people are using #workfare. Datasift claim they included #workfare in their research, but I have my doubts as to how true this is. Perhaps this will be clarified in some way, but at present they seem to have deleted some or all of the tweets where they claimed they had included #workfare – several can be seen on google cached versions of pages but not on the actual twitter streams themselves. I have no idea why this might be so.

So where do we stand?

So far, so typical. Apparently nobody’s talking about it, those that are don’t understand it, those that do aren’t bothered by it, and those campaigning against it are – without exception – trots (which, I take it, are alien creatures something like this). This is the sort of masterful Machiavellianism we have come to expect from subtle statesmen like Chris Grayling. The outcome of all of this is that after companies threatening to pull out, protests and so on, the government have amended the rules so that people will no longer be sanctioned if they pull out of the work experience.

The spin on this change is that it’s all ok now because everyone taking part in the scheme is doing so voluntarily. The unspoken implication here is that it’s therefore none of anyone else’s business. I think this is a deliberate tactic of misdirection (combined with prioritising the demands of corporations over those of citizens/workers/consumers).

 The real problems

The government’s workfare schemes have serious and systematic problems that cannot be put right by ensuring that the schemes are voluntary. Participants are likely not to be in a position to make an informed and uncoerced decision about whether it’s worth working for free, due to a combination of government propaganda, poor ‘economic literacy’ among the general population and Jobcentre lies (they have been known to tell people schemes are compulsory when they’re voluntary, etc).

Even if all the participants take part entirely voluntarily, this still poses a problem for the rest of us, since it puts downward pressure on the terms and conditions of everyone else – if firms can acquire free labour based on the hope of future work, they are less likely to take on more staff, raise the wages of those they already have, etc. Labour-market competition will drive down wages in the private sector, which will probably then increase the public/private divide, leading to more conflict and hostility towards public sector pay and conditions, thus indirectly eroding them via increasing public support for the government doing so.

More harm than good?

This question of less staff being taken on brings us on to the next problem, which is that the scheme may actually make unemployment worse. The data released so far suggests that participants are on JSA longer on average than non-participants, and that dreaded beast “common sense” suggests that workers will create less jobs if free labour is available than they would otherwise. The notion that workfare would alleviate unemployment is based on the idea that a noticeable chunk of unemployment in this country is caused by a lack of basic employment experienced at an unskilled level. This seems simply unrealistic - I find it hard to envisage a situation in which employers are throwing their hands up in despair because they refuse to employ people who haven’t sat behind a checkout.

Are loads of huge corporations sitting around twiddling their thumbs saying “Oh golly, we’d love to employ someone to fill this role in the company, but none of them has shelf-stacking experience, so I guess we’ll just have to wait however long it takes until someone comes up who has”?  I find that very hard to believe. If they’re not, then the work experience itself isn’t really going to help. It merely means that a company that would otherwise employ someone with no experience will be employing somebody with some experience. And this assessment makes sense – how does providing more people with experience create jobs?

Recall that there are less jobs available than there are people looking for work. Part of this is because our economy assumes a natural rate of unemployment, of which possibly more in a future post. But nevertheless this means that even if everybody who was looking for work had exactly the skills, contacts, experience, etc they needed to find a job, there would still not be enough to go around. The fact that more skills are available in the economy doesn’t cause employers to want to employ more people; even a highly skilled labour force doesn’t mean full employment, and there is a massive difference between genuine work skills and generalised unskilled work experience.

On that note, it’s important to understand the difference between slating the work experience scheme and being against training for the unemployed in general. Work experience and skills training are different things; the work experience programme is about putting mostly unskilled young workers into unskilled roles for a short period of time in the hope that this will, in the words of the right wing, “get them out of bed in the morning”. I’m not saying this won’t help anybody – I can see how a voluntary agreement to try to do some work every week over a period of time might help someone suffering from depression and so on. But I can’t see it having a positive effect overall because it fails to impart real shortage skills; being a graphic designer, a computer programmer, an electrician or a doctor is not comparable to having spent ages in Poundland making items go ‘beep’ and cleaning up on aisle 5 in Tesco.

The conservative motto

Finally – and I think this has been somewhat understated by the campaigners against workfare due to their focus on the fact that taxpayers are subsidising private firms, etc – there should be a principled opposition to unpaid labour of this kind. The public debate about workfare represents an opportunity to forge an alliance around the issue of unpaid work; it would certainly include claimants and interns – it may also include workers in relation to unpaid overtime and even housewives and feminists of the Wages for Housework persuasion, etc.

In relation to workfare and interns, we should be arguing the point that if  you run a for-profit company and you have someone work for you, the fact that you are ‘providing them with experience’ is not an excuse for not paying them; all work ‘provides people with experience’, but we still pay unless the person doing it is young or has a history of unemployment. This is straightforward exploitation of people’s vulnerability in the labour market. Providing someone with genuine training, as I have said, is not the same as throwing them into an unskilled job for a few weeks.

People don’t necessarily have to be paid to learn useful new skills that employers are demanding and finding a shortage of, but they should certainly be paid to work. There may of course be exceptions in very specific circumstances like genuine volunteering via charitable or political organisations, but if you are creating value that will be appropriated for profit, I see no reason why you shouldn’t receive a wage for doing so. The very least the government could do if they’re not willing to introduce the minimum wage on the programme (although there have been suggestions that it legally applies), or even the apprentice rate for the minimum wage, is make the employers pay the JSA and any expenses directly to the claimant rather than subsidising big business with free labour at the taxpayer’s expense.

There is already an ongoing struggle to get the minimum wage actively applied to interns, but so far there has been little success. Given that companies in some industries habitually rely on several unpaid interns at a time in order to function properly, this is often not the philanthropic provision of training on the job to some lucky apprentice, it is the use of those desperate to break into an industry as free labour to grease the cogs. In fact, apprentices are actually paid, although less than other workers. Socialists often struggle with the incentive structure of capitalism and take a stand on the basis of justice. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I can see a case from an economic and politically pragmatic point of view for perhaps conceding that the apprentice rate should apply to interns and jobseekers on work placements, rather than the full minimum wage.

Political misdirection

If people continue to be distracted by the question of whether schemes are compulsory or semi-compulsory or presented as compulsory or whatever, though, they will miss the important questions about remuneration and the wider efficacy of the programme. Personally I don’t think there would be such a big problem with making a scheme compulsory if it was paid, whereas a voluntary but unpaid scheme still raises my hackles. And that’s precisely the point – the government are trying to divert us from the real issues here by purposefully misconstruing the public outcry and leading us down a dead-end path for the sake of preserving corporate subsidies and holding down working class wages and conditions.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Economics, Political Strategy, Student Issues, Uncategorized

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.

Conclusion

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.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Economics, Labour History, Uncategorized

Diane Abbott and “Black community”

by Anne Archist

In an unexpected turn of events, my writer’s block seems to be getting better, so here’s a post about Diane Abbott’s latest controversy. I should have known that something would have to happen, at some time and place, to compensate for the fact that Diane Abbott actually said something really sensible the other day. I didn’t realise that the balance of the universe would be restored quite so quickly, but there you have it.

So, for the benefit of those who haven’t clicked the second link above, Abbott tweeted that “white people love divide and rule”, in the context of discussing the Stephen Lawrence case and the media coverage of it with some fellow twitter users. This was apparently meant to be a sophisticated comment about the history of race relations and specifically applicable to colonial power structures. To a lot of people it just sound like cracker-hating. This prompted a debate across the blogosphere and all seven seas of social networking (not forgetting that weird domain called Real Life too) as to whether it was possible for Black people to be racist to White people.  I’ll give you my thoughts on that as quickly as possible and then move on to the main point of this post.

Whether you call things aimed at White people ‘racism’ is a question of definitions, and definitions (like dialectics) cannot break bricks – defining and redefining words will never in itself change the reality they refer to (yes, words play a role in constituting ideologies and social norms and so forth, but I mean here that something doesn’t change bad to good just because you use a different word to refer to it). So you can choose to define ‘racism’ as referring only to acts backed up by institutions or systems or sheer weight of number, and you can even try to convince other people to use your definition, but that merely leaves an unresolved question: do other forms of racially-based prejudice, discrimination, hate or violence that don’t count as ‘racism’ under this definition matter?

I’d argue pretty strongly that these things do matter and they are bad – generally speaking they might not be ‘as bad’, perhaps, but they certainly shouldn’t be excused or encouraged. I’d like to hear the reasoning of anyone who thinks that racially-motivated violence, in particular, should be ignored just because it happens to White people – obviously generalisations and stereotypes are not on the same level as attacks, but the principle still stands that it is fundamentally bad for people to be acting on the basis of prejudice or hatred rather than an open mind. Having said that, I d o think the debate around Abbott’s remarks are a storm in a thimble – yes, she said “white people”, which is bound to be interpreted to mean “all white people”, and racialised a generic tactic used by powerful people of all colours. However, she was talking on twitter in the context of a conversation about institutional racism within power structures like the police and referring to colonialism, not tweeting ‘honky’ at unsuspecting members of the public and suggesting that The White Man Is The Devil.

The real problem with what she said, I think, is precisely what she was intending to say, not the poor and controversial phrasing she chose. One Black woman tweeted that she was fed up of the “Black Community” myth – sick of seeing “Black leaders” who didn’t listen to the people they supposedly represented, speaking as if the community was monolithic. Abbott replied that Black people should put up an image of unity to the media and not ‘wash dirty linen in public’ (as she suggested in a #hashtag multiple times).  This is not an argument I expected to hear from a Black feminist woman representing a poor constituency, especially since it was used to dismiss feminists within the Civil Rights movement and Black activists within the feminist movement, not to mention time and time again since (lesbian separatists within the LGBT community, etc).

Abbott defended herself one the grounds that she was talking about “political tactics” while acknowledging that there were cultural differences within the community/ies, but knowing that she once owned the Black feminist reader ‘All the women are White, all the Blacks are men, but some of us are brave‘, it’s difficult to know quite what to think about this advice. Putting Abbott’s mentality into practice most often means the loudest voice in the group winning out and the others being silenced; this is also clearly manifested not only in the history of Black feminism but also in certain modern and historical political parties, etc. Open debate is a good thing, and there is no reason why it cannot be carried out in public. I find it slightly worrying that nobody else seems to be picking up on this point so far.

This isn’t just a question of silencing less powerful or numerous voices and preventing the expression of certain opinions or experiences. The “Black Community” being represented by a single voice with a single viewpoint also makes it easier to stereotype and undermine. The feminist movement has been noticeably impeded by precisely the notion that all feminists think alike – despite more recent attempts to acknowledge diversity of opinion within the feminist movement, the old attitude of “if you don’t agree, keep quiet and we’ll have it out later” seems to have influenced the public imagination a great deal.

This affects ‘recruitment’ into movements – there are quite a few women out there who refuse to call themselves feminists, would go to great lengths to avoid being labelled as feminists, avoid feminist books, etc purely because they didn’t want to be put in the same camp as anti-porn activists or people more concerned with woman CEOs than working class women, etc. It also affects the way that the movement can engage in public discourse, since it is compelled to state single definitive position (often a poorly-thought-out one, because often the people in a position to speak for the whole group are not in a position to know what is happening on the ground, or have more extensive bias or more simplistic or blinkered ideas than a lot of other people who might try to offer a view as part of the community). It probably has other negative consequences that I’ve not mentioned in this article, and the same sort of problems apply within communities.

To suggest that the “Black Community” should, despite its heterogeneous nature, project a single voice in public is to suggest that every other voice within the community should be silenced; being afforded the luxury to speak within your own community on the terms of those with more power is hardly the same as an open exchange of ideas and experiences as part of the wider public  discourse. It suggests, among other things, that Black women should put up and shut up while White women and Black men attempt to speak for them in most cases, and it certainly suggests that minority communities, women, less mainstream political tendencies and so on should be contributing to the debate from the perspective of somebody who is a part of wider society rather than marginalised by it. Let’s wash our dirty misogyny, our dirty racism, our dirty exploitation, our dirty violence in public, where everyone can see it and the perpetrators cannot sweep it under the carpet.

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New Year, New Labour

by Anne Archist

Labour are trying once again to re-invent themselves; 2012 has already seen a new attitude that amounts to exhuming the short-lived corpse of Blue Labour.

The media identified prior ‘re-launches’ under Miliband’s stewardship in June of last year and November of the year before, not to mention that his election as leader was itself supposed to de-toxify the Labour brand after the Blair-Brown years. Each previous attempt also utilised Maurice ‘The Baron’ Glasman’s “if you can’t beat them, imitate them” logic; this time, though, the leadership’s ‘Kinder, Küche, Kirche’ ideology has been dressed up in Beveridge’s old clothes, saved for just such an occasion.

The Baron was disappointed to learn that Jon Crudas had skipped Sunday service.

Blue Labour is enough to make a Marxist miss Brown Labour. At least Gordon ‘Golden’ Brown realised it was “the economy, stupid” and had some tentative ideas what could be done about it – The Baron would rather have us believe that modern society’s inexorable autosarcophagy can be stemmed by getting more bums on pews at St Saviour in the Marshes. Liam Byrne is the whipping-boy tasked with the triumphant fanfair, and is at least an improvement on Glasman. The Baron wrote and said the sorts of things that would make you choke on your bourbon biscuit in shock as you casually perused the Guardian website over a cuppa. Byrne is the kind of character who might make you emit involuntary Marge Simpson impressions, but not cough up crumbs and hot tea over your keyboard.

The big news is that Labour are “reclaiming [Beveridge’s] vision, learning from his political courage, understanding what has gone wrong in recent years as well as what has worked”; they must “become the radical reformers again”. Like a student who forgets to attach their essay to the e-mail, Byrne seems to have all-too-conveniently left out the details. There are hints at what the new approach to welfare policy might be, and some of them aren’t pretty.

Encouragingly, Byrne savages the current system’s treatment of the ill and disabled, and ends on a high note: “Beveridge’s first principles are the right place to begin”. But the warning signs are all there, and we have come to expect no better from ‘triangulated’ Labour: “Beveridge would have wanted determined action from government to get communities working once again, not least to bring down that benefits bill to help pay down the national debt”, “He never saw unearned support as desirable”, so “let’s restore the idea of ‘something for something’”.

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Now, as it happens, although Liam Byrne was neither born nor elected in my local area, he was educated here in his adolescence. I would like to think, then, that having experienced a world where around 30% have no qualifications, unemployment has frequently hit 10% or higher (with youth unemployment particularly high and a relatively high number of people never having worked), there is a high measure of overcrowding and 30% live in council housing, Byrne might have some understanding of the problems facing – and generally the lives of – those who rely on the welfare state in some form.

On the other hand, Byrne also sat on the committee that drafted legislation penalising phone usage by drivers, and then got a fine and points on his license for… yep, you guessed it, using a phone while driving. Perhaps, then, it would be too much to expect of him. While paying lip service to the content of Beveridge’s skilful and considered (though still imperfect) report, one gets the impression that Labour are more keen to vicariously cash in on its kudos than to implement its ideas as policy. This impression is all the more forgivable in light of New Labour’s record, and especially given the continued influence that Glasman’s ideas exercise over the party leadership (despite the formal dissolution of the Blue Labour project after the aforementioned ugly comments made by The Baron himself).

It would be a massive coup if Labour could produce something like the Beveridge report these days. Of late, state-commissioned research has been getting more slapdash and significantly shorter, with all of the loss of detail, balance and elucidation that implies; consider the 2010 Browne report into Higher Education, a total wash-out weighing in at only a nominal 60 pages (which is misleadingly high considering that ~5 pages of that are taken up by appendices and references, and the report itself contains more blank space and pictures than your average colouring book). The 1963 Robbins Report into Higher Education, to put that into perspective, had 335 pages. Obviously I’d rather give the number of words since this is a better standard of comparison, but this is difficult for technical reasons and you get the picture at any rate.

Beveridge struggles to find anything of any intellectual merit in the Browne Report.

It’s not just a question of the length of the report and the level of detail and the development of the logic that was possible as a result. It’s also a question of the mind and principles behind the recommendations; the principles were laid out honestly, the best practical application was explained meticulously and with sharp insight. As Liam Byrne points out in his article, the general public responded so positively that there were queues to buy the report. Beveridge strips his subject matter bare and builds his thought process up in a clear and honest way that can be followed by anyone inclined to do so, rather than filling the text with jargon or tacitly presupposing a narrow ideology. If every report were like the Beveridge report, bureaucracy would not be such a bad thing.

Labour have two choices. They could attach a dynamo to Beveridge’s coffin and prove themselves partially useful by forcing him to spin – with a bit of luck they might be able to power a constituency office with the electricity generated. Alternatively, they can take the challenge seriously and commission talented intellects to conduct a wholesale enquiry into the modern benefits system and its intersections with other areas of state and market activity. Taking this route would mean considering not only issues like the incentives provided by child benefits, but also the relationship between wages and benefits in their various forms, the future of social housing stock, the feasibility of full employment (which Beveridge assumed in his report), etc.

While it may not be immediately apparent, these questions are vital to understanding why the benefits system works as it does, and how it might work differently. The level of benefits or the conditions associated with them do supply incentives to act in one way or another, but they do not do so in a vacuum. The consequence of a particular policy (setting a threshold just so, or banning this type of person from receiving that payment) depends hugely upon other social variables that exist alongside the benefits system but are not themselves part of it. Even Byrne’s colleague Diane Abbott made this point effectively when she noted that the housing benefit bill “reflects a conscious political decision by successive governments to subsidise (mostly) private landlords rather than invest in affordable council housing”.

While we’re looking at benefits from different angles, let’s also remember that there are more things in heaven and earth, neoliberal, than are dreamt of in your economics. It shouldn’t be a surprise if someone values 15 hrs of their time more highly than the £15 difference it would make to their income. We should re-evaluate which factors are taken into consideration in determining payments and how – should 2 friends living together get any more or less than 2 partners living together? We should be clear about what sort of behaviours we are incentivising or penalising and why – do we want less children (say, for environmentalist reasons) or more (to counteract the aging population and pay for their parents’ pensions and healthcare, perhaps)?

If a re-examination of the welfare state dodges problems like this then it will have ensured its irrelevance and its inferiority to the original. In fact, it’s tempting to suggest that Miliband might as well just re-publish and re-read the original Beveridge report in its entirety and apply the principles and arguments laid out in it to the contemporary situation, since it’s difficult to imagine the modern Labour party producing or commissioning anything of great positive significance.

Byrne hits the nail on the head when he says that what is needed is radicalism, though I doubt he has the stomach to put this concept into action – healing the malaise of the welfare state may mean rebuilding the entire taxation system from the ground up, ensuring structural full employment, introducing a universal minimum income (like that proposed by the Green Party), or other wholesale changes to basic components of our economy and society. Byrne is all bluster, but calling his bluff could yield real fruit.

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Milton Friedman’s Vision for Universities

by Anne Archist

In 1955, Milton Friedman published a highly influential paper entitled ‘The Role of Government in Education’. All the major UK parties have borrowed policies from the text. It argues that lower levels of education should be funded by the state, with only “citizenship or leadership” education being funded beyond this (not “vocational or professional” education); all levels of education should be administered privately, through a system subject to market pressures.

The goal here is to ensure that education providers must respond to “consumer” demands, there is no “unfair” competition between the state and private providers, and only appropriate educational activities are funded. While recognising the difficulty of distinguishing between the two types of education in practice, Friedman holds that they are in principle separable. A key passage dealing with the latter type argues that the market ensures appropriate incentives and it is unjust for taxpayers to bear the costs while graduates reap the benefits.

“[Vocational or professional education] is a form of investment in human capital precisely analogous to investment in machinery, buildings, or other forms of non human capital. Its function is to raise the economic productivity of the human being. If it does so, the individual is rewarded … by receiving a higher return for his services than he would otherwise be able to command. This difference is the economic incentive to acquire the specialized training … [I]f the individual undertakes the investment and if the state neither subsidizes the investment nor taxes the return, the individual (or his parent, sponsor, or benefactor) in general bears all the extra cost and receives all the extra returns: there are no obvious unborne costs or unappropriable returns that tend to make private incentives diverge systematically from those that are socially appropriate”.

The American higher education system has led to an underinvestment in human capital, according to the paper, so easier access to capital must be provided for this purpose. However, if this easy access to capital took the form of state subsidies for students, there would tend to be overinvestment in human capital. Friedman’s solution is to provide an advance for up-front investment secured against later earnings. In the modern political vernacular “the funding follows the student”, exercising market pressures, while the system as a whole is still funded through a form of semi-progressive taxation.

What Friedman’s article doesn’t give due consideration to is the difference between training in different areas – “education” and “training” are treated abstractly. The “return” varies greatly depending on degree subject, and to a lesser extent with race and gender. All of this is obliquely acknowledged when Friedman says that “[Repayment] should in principle vary from individual to individual in accordance with any differences in expected earning capacity”, but there is no exploration of the effects.

Where does this leave arts degrees, which I presume are not covered under training for “citizenship or leadership”, and others that represent a low return compared to the current cost of education? At present, all undergraduate degree courses generally cost the same at a given institution. In some subjects the cost is already greater than the return, and this will only become more common as fees rise and graduate premiums potentially fall due to greater supply of graduates. Medicine degrees, for instance, have a huge impact on earning potential, whereas male arts graduates may not earn any more than they would otherwise, according to some studies (this varies, but there is unanimity on the fact that the arts are currently very low-payoff disciplines). If the student were to bear all the costs of such a degree up-front, they would have no economic incentive to study it. Nobody would want to invest in students on such low-earning courses so easily available capital would dry up in these disciplines; it would represent the death of the arts for all but the wealthiest.

On the other hand, Friedman wants graduates to bear the costs of their own education, so there is no reason why he should support cross-subsidisation between faculties. For consistency, arts subjects would have to be provided at a much lower cost, meaning that medicine, engineering, and similar high-cost, high-return subjects would be even more expensive than they currently are. The gulf in graduate earnings would be reflected by a gulf in tuition costs. This would avoid the death of the arts but may cause less expensive degrees to be seen as the poor person’s degree, as low-quality (‘cheap’ in a derogatory sense), or as unattractive due to evidently low returns.

All of the above is an attempt to impose market logic onto the education system. Despite our best efforts, consecutive governments are following Friedman’s paper as a blueprint – this puts us in a difficult position if we want education to be about more than individuals investing in future earnings. Not only this, but it raises the question of whether the idiosyncrasies of higher education (e.g. providers select consumers as well as vice versa, we only know what we were paying for after the transaction has been completed, etc) conflict with the neoliberal market logic that Friedman sought to discipline it to. I’m interested in that question and might write about it later, but for now I just want to leave you with this question of what further ‘marketisation’ could do in terms of differentiating courses financially, and the broader consequences that these changes might have. Any ideas are welcome in the comments section below.

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A brief note about statistics

by Anne Archist

I just wanted to point out something readers might find interesting – a disparity in the government’s statistics. All of the discussion around Frank Field’s claim that 90% of new jobs have gone to immigrants under the coalition made me curious… How many of these ‘new jobs’ have been created by immigrants? After all, most people reading this will probably be aware that many immigrants to the UK are rich Russian, European or North American entrepreneurs and investors. Even at the lower levels of the economy, consider the kebab shop – it may be staffed by immigrants, but isn’t it also owned by one in most cases? Naturally, being curious about this, I submitted some freedom of information requests to relevant government bodies asking them about it. The reply was the same from every department – “we don’t hold that information”. Government immigration policy is being made without any clue as to how many immigrants are easing unemployment in the UK. While I’m not shocked by this, I am a little surprised that they have literally no relevant information whatsoever – I was expecting that they might have some kind of rough or headline figure, even if they couldn’t break that down into accurate categories and tell me how many of these were UK citizens born abroad, how many were EU citizens, etc. So I thought I would let you know, dear readers, because I suspect it is of interest to many of you…

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A Referendum Retrospective

by Anne Archist

The overall result isn’t in yet, but it looks like the no campaign are on course for a 70/30 split victory in yesterday’s referendum. Whatever the exact result, FPTP has definitely taken the day. A substantial majority against AV will secure the tory inclination to spin this as an endorsement of the current system, and to refuse further attempts at reform. The libdems, judging by the local election results and recent polls, are more than decimated and will be in no position to put pressure on anyone for electoral reform agreements; presumably this leaves our only hope of achieving PR in the short term with Labour, among whom there seems to be considerable division on the issue (unlike the libdems), with the LRC seemingly supporting FPTP rather than just opposing AV in the referendum (they repeated false claims by ASLEF that AV “gives some people more votes than others” and their statement generally had the tone of a group quite happy with the status quo, thankyouverymuch).

What can we learn from the referendum, in retrospect? Firstly, the result was probably significantly influenced by utter lies like claims that AV would cost £250m or violate the principle of “one person, one vote”. Secondly, the hypocrisy has been staggering. Labour and the tories both use AV to select their leader, and front-benchers of both parties, as well as some rank and file members of Labour and the vast majority of tory members, supported the no campaign. There’s nothing inherently hypocritical about supporting different voting systems in different contexts, but to do so on the basis that the system is inherently unfair and undemocratic because it gives some people more votes than others (as Cameron and others did) is completely inconsistent.

It’s particularly worrying that the LRC waxed lyrical about “one person, one vote”, given that Labour not only uses AV to elect the leader, but also uses electoral colleges which absolutely uncontroversially do violate that principle (in contrast to AV, which preserves it). There was less objectionable no campaigning from other sources like the RMT – while they also elect their leader by AV, their reasoning was that the referendum was a “distraction”, not that AV was fundamentally unfair. The AWL, CPB, and some others on the left will be celebrating a victory (of sorts!) tonight, but we’ve yet to see whether the reasoning behind their no vote will be borne out in practice – we can assess the help or hindrance this result gives to the cause of PR, and the damage it does to the coalition, but it’s beyond me as to how we’d establish claims that AV would have returned worse governments and so on.

We’ll never know for sure which arguments held most weight with the public, but it certainly seems hard to believe that the poll reflects a fully and honestly informed electorate. If, indeed, about 70% of the public back FPTP purely on the basis that it avoids coalitions and results in strong governments (which as far as I can see was the only argument in favour of FPTP that survives even superficial rational scrutiny), we might as well pack up and hand the country over to the tories and the NF.

Admittedly, there is a generational gap in polls; though PR looks to be even further on the back-burner now, we may see more people becoming comfortable with preferential voting systems over the next decade or two. Interestingly, this may be at least in part due to Labour policies, but not ones to do with constitutional or electoral reform; I’m thinking of their considerable emphasis on more young people going to university, and their devolution of powers.

Regarding the university issue, I’m not saying this because a population with a higher percentage of graduates is better educated and therefore better able to understand the issues – in fact, I doubt this is true except for a very few subjects like economics or maths. The reason that more people going to university could be making a difference is that universities tend to use AV to elect students’ union officers; the more graduates there are in a population, the more people we can expect to have already used AV and therefore got over the barrier of understanding how to mark the ballot correctly, roughly how the votes will be counted, etc. Devolution, of course, has given people in some parts of the UK a chance to get their head around using things other than pure FPTP, particularly in Northern Ireland, where STV is used (more or less identical from the voter’s point of view to AV).

The coming weeks and months should give us a clue as to whether PR will remain a live debate or evaporate into the murky politico shadows it crept from just a few months ago and once again evoke ‘Public Relations’ for most of the electorate. Certainly the former won’t happen on its own – it’s now the responsibility of those on the left that argued for a no-to-AV-yes-to-PR vote to lead  an energetic display of campaigning and debate that will make it impossible for electoral reform to be forgotten amongst the cuts (however much this might piss off Bob Crow), and to give a sharp rebuke to those elements that aligned with them for more conservative reasons, like the LRC.

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