Tag Archives: sexual violence

We should not have to read this crap on International Women’s Day

*This article will, unavoidably, feature potentially upsetting material relating to rape, victim-blaming, etc.*

by Anne Archist

Phil Sheppard’s article, published on page 14 of The Cambridge Student today, might easily have been a scorecard for ‘patronising bingo’. First he sets the tone by telling us that “discussion of sexual offences is marred by miscommunication”; presumably he believes that nobody could possibly agree with them, if only they understood! Next, his opponents in the debate are told to “cease taking offence”. After all, we all know how emotional women are, right? And they do get “offended” at the silliest things like men pointing out that if they didn’t want to get raped then they shouldn’t have worn that skirt! I’m going to try to deconstruct most of what’s wrong with this particular article, but it’s part of a wider attitude towards rape and personal responsibility, and many of the same arguments could be applied to other examples of this general attitude. Note: I’m assuming Sheppard’s article is only supposed to address a contemporary Western audience, so I’m pretty much responding in kind.

The article’s argument is basically that although victims should not be morally blamed for any actions that may figure in their being raped, such as walking around late at night on their own, they are still causally responsible in a non-moral sense, and therefore more rapes could be avoided if we focused more on encouraging people to take precautions against being raped. It prominently features equivocation; this means using multiple meanings of the same term in an argument as if they were interchangeable. For instance: “All rivers have banks. All banks have cash-points. Therefore all rivers have cash-points.” This example plays on the multiple meanings of the word ‘bank’ in order to reach a clearly false conclusion. It should be evident this is a logical fallacy, meaning that all arguments of this form are invalid.

Sheppard’s equivocation is between two meanings of ‘responsibility’. First, he tells us that by ‘responsibility’ he means “situations in which … a person is a factual cause” (similar to what is known as ‘causal responsibility’ in the philosophical literature). He uses it accordingly when he writes that “If a homeowner leaves his house unlocked in a neighbourhood of renowned burglars, he is partly responsible for his losses”. However, he later writes that “Potential victims must be made aware that they have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to prevent being affected by crime”; here he uses ‘responsibility’ in the sense of an obligation or expectation laid on an individual to act in a certain way. He has therefore smuggled in the idea that women have some kind of behavioural obligations without attempting to justify this claim. After telling us he is using a narrow technical sense of the word at the start, he slips into a broader usage later on with no comment and no distinction maintained.

The claim of obligation looks justified, because the author seems to have followed a very rigorous, logical argument through to its conclusion. What he has actually done is use the same word in different contexts to make it sound like a logical argument, when in fact it is an illogical one. Being intellectually scrupulous, I should point out that his conclusion isn’t automatically false just because his argument is illogical. To illustrate: “My house is made of cats, therefore I have two eyes” is not a logically valid argument, but its conclusion is still true.

The article doesn’t rely entirely on this elision of meanings to reach its conclusion – Sheppard doesn’t just say that women have a “responsibility” to take precautions, but also (more reasonably) that perhaps it would be a good idea, purely from a practical point of view. There is certainly a difference here. To say that you are obliged to take precautions implies that you are held liable if you do not (i.e. that you will be considered “at fault” and therefore “blamed”, in Sheppard’s use of the word), and may justify less sympathy towards you, greater leniency towards the perpetrator, etc. To say that it would be a good idea to take precautions anyway is not necessarily to imply these things, in theory. This is the crux of the article – it says, in effect, “we won’t think any less of you if you don’t, but we’d prefer it if you wore a longer skirt”, etc.

There’s one obvious objection to this, which is more or less a recognition of the complexity of causality, the ‘butterfly effect’ model of causation. Yes, if the victim hadn’t walked down that alley, they wouldn’t have been raped. But similarly, if they had eaten a badly-preserved curry they found in the fridge the day before rather than throwing it away, they would have been suffering from food poisoning and not left the house at all that night. Or, if they had left the club an hour earlier they would have walked down the alley before the attacker arrived. Or…

The point here is not to be a smartass. The point is to say that responsibility in the sense of factual cause, which Sheppard says he is talking about, is highly dispersive – as you examine it, more agents become involved, more acts become involved, individual agents’ links become more tenuous and individual actions’ effects become harder to trace, etc. Even with a relatively limited frame of reference we can identify many potential agents and acts that could have changed the outcome in many cases.

Suppose someone takes a taxi to a party and rapes someone there. Is the taxi driver responsible for the rape? In the ordinary sense of the word, clearly not. In the technical sense Sheppard claims to be using, though, they are – their acts formed part of a chain of events that caused the rape. Of course the taxi driver has no idea that their actions will result in a rape, but this is irrelevant to their being a “factual cause”. The moment we start introducing judgements about whether someone knew or could have guessed the consequences of their actions,  we have gone beyond the type of responsibility Sheppard is addressing; frankly, we are starting to draw a line between merely being a part of a causal chain and having some moral significance in the causal chain, which is precisely what we have agreed we are not doing when we say a victim’s actions may be preconditions for their being raped.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Sheppard comes back with a response that goes something like this: “I’m not saying there’s any moral blame attached to the victim knowing their actions make their being raped more likely, I’m just saying that if they can see the consequences then they probably should act differently” – not in the sense of a moral ‘should’, just in the sense that you ‘should’ go to the gym if you want to lose weight (what Kant called “the hypothetical imperative”). This is the only way out of the dilemma that I can see.

This is where I really part ways with the article’s author. He comes across as entirely ignorant of the realities of rape and women’s lives. This isn’t necessarily his fault, as such, and it’s often difficult to know how little you know, so I don’t blame him for thinking he could write a well-informed and well-argued article. Perhaps he has actually studied rape statistics in depth and so on, but we can only go on the article, which puts across an impression of someone who still thinks that rape is something that happens only when a drunk woman in a short skirt walks down a dark alley on her own and a man leaps from a dustbin to violently assault her.

Among Sheppard’s paternalistic pronouncements is the exhortation to women to “begin taking care”. I get the impression that he, like many men, has never considered what he has never had to consider – what might a woman’s life be like? By that I mean both the events that take place in her life, objectively, and her own subjective experience and internalisation of those events. I’m sure Sheppard means well, but perhaps he should think before he puts pen to paper about how much sexual harassment women may have to deal with on a weekly basis, how many women have survived sexual violence and desperately want not to go through it again, how much more attention women may pay to their drinks in clubs, etc. The fact that he literally tells women to be more careful is perhaps the most patronising aspect of the article – but don’t get offended, remember!

Still, people could always take more care, right? Nobody’s perfect. I should re-state Sheppard’s advice as clearly as possible: “[There is] a risk known to, and avoidable by, the victim [who therefore should] take reasonable steps to prevent being affected by crime”. There are several problems with this thesis: firstly, sexual violence is not as easily avoided as he implies; secondly, it is not as easy to determine the reasonability of steps as he implies; thirdly, regardless of the author’s protestations, it puts the emphasis on the wrong party.

Certainly, we know that there is a risk of rape. Some women feel this as practically ever-present, at least in the back of their minds.  But the more you know about rape, the more you realise it isn’t something you can expect to protect yourself against. Multiple studies have confirmed that the majority of perpetrators are known by their victims, most commonly as a husband or partner. Around a third of girls have been sexually assaulted, often by relatives or other trusted adults. How exactly does one avoid these attacks? Should women stop entering romantic relationships? Should young girls lock their doors from the inside when they go to bed at night?

I know both men and women who have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted. One took the “precaution” of getting a (licensed) cab home and was harassed by the driver, who then tried to attack her. One was an adolescent boy attacked by a trusted older male. One was attacked by a stranger in a supposedly very safe environment. There are more, in varied circumstances. The vast majority of these were in supposedly safe circumstances, with supposedly trustworthy people; in fact, I know of only one person who was attacked while walking around in public on their own.

So what would Phil Sheppard have women do? It also seems strange that he doesn’t suggest that men take any precautions – most victims of rape are women, but not all, and apparently we all have a “responsibility” to avoid being raped… And what exactly counts as a reasonable precaution? Once we confront the real trends in rape, rather than the ‘stranger in the bushes’ mirage, should women avoid relationships with men, going outside their own home at all, letting men into their home, etc?

Chastity belts might be some help, but even they have their limits. I’m inclined to think all of these things fall outside the “reasonable” camp. I take it then, that Sheppard is just encouraging women not to dress too sexily, get too drunk, or walk around alone at night, and hoping this will be enough to avert sexual attacks. I hope it’s evident by now why this is basically useless advice. In fact, the advice may be worse than useless.

By writing an entire comment piece about how women are really – after all – partially responsible for their own victimisation by rapists, Sheppard focuses the spotlight squarely on the victim themselves. Sheppard contributes to the overall culture of questioning women’s consent or non-consent in an accusatory manner. In other words, if you didn’t take reasonable precautions, then maybe you really secretly wanted it. This is akin to reprimanding women for not crying out loud enough (as Deuteronomy 22:24 does, condemning raped women to stoning to death as a result).

Sheppard says quite explicitly that the focus should not be on reducing men’s willingness to rape, but on increasing women’s fear: “Educating men about rape is laudable, but only insofar as it does not detract from personal risk-aversion”; women should act more afraid than they currently do, in other words. This renders the argument amenable to those who use rape as a tool of power, whether husband, father, soldier, teacher, politician or priest. Note the wording of the comment (surely not intentionally phrased this way). It would be one thing to say that it would be unfortunate if the focus on men’s responsibility led to women letting down their guard and then being raped. Instead, the wording used states that educating men about rape ceases to be laudable the moment it in any way detracts from (women’s) risk-averse behaviour.

Women’s fictional “responsibility” to take precautions (established only through equivocation) is given priority over men’s real responsibility not to rape (easily established by basic moral reasoning: rape is wrong and one has a responsibility not to do things that are wrong).Similarly, in a singularly unfortunate choice of words, Sheppard writes: “The continued drive against victim-blaming is having a detrimental effect”; in other words, all this feminist noise about how a victim shouldn’t be made to feel responsible for their own rape is distracting us from the Real Issue, which is that women just aren’t trying hard enough to avoid being raped. The implicit trade-off here is having a relatively full life versus the threat of being raped, particularly for women; know that you run the risk of sexual violence if you want to go out alone at night, if you want to have close relationships with men, if you want to travel, etc.

For the record, I don’t think Phil Sheppard is an unreconstructed misogynist victim-blaming rape apologist. I think he’s a relatively intelligent person who’s trying to take an ‘objective’, ‘academic’ stance on a question of power politics that exists in the real world without letting the real world inform that stance. I think he’s got people’s best interests at heart, but I think his article is dreadfully-argued and counterproductive. It tells us nothing we can actually use – it has no actual suggestions of what people could do to take reasonable precautions. It doesn’t even acknowledge the areas that might be problematic, like how small the impact of “precautions” on rape may be, or the contested nature of “reasonable” precautions. This is compounded by the fact that he has worded some things very badly and adopted an air of patronising academia that has been abused to veil an invalid argument towards an empirically-ill-supported conclusion. Phil, I’m sure you’re not trying to blame rape survivors – I understand that, you haven’t miscommunicated it – but I do think you’re going the wrong way about supporting them and fighting rape.

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Filed under Liberation issues, Philosophy, 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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