Tag Archives: Tories

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.


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.


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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Current Affairs, Economics, Labour History, Uncategorized

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.


Filed under Current Affairs, Economics, History, Student Issues, Uncategorized

Dorries tells porkies: Don’t believe everything that you read in Hansard

by Anne Archist

Nadine Dorries has been in the headlines once again over at one of the two places that doesn’t agree with her. The interview is quite a good one, calling her out on various claims and implications she makes beyond the more obvious such as the ‘banana condom’ moment. The problem with Dorries is that her lying seems to be compulsive; one can offer no political explanation of this, it is a trait seemingly unique to Dorries among the current slew of tories that she tells obvious lies on a daily basis. She has even admitted that she fabricates the majority of her blog although she later climbed down a few rungs and suggested that only a third was “fiction”. In either case she is hardly a beacon of transparency and trustworthiness.

I am less concerned by her attempts to mislead the public about where she spends her weekends and more by the complete rubbish that she spews in trying to gain support for legislative measures. You can read a lot of this in the interview, where it generally amounts to vague assertions without any evidence and vast exaggeration or fabrication of scientific research to support arbitrary abstractions (in the face of real scientific research). The particular issue that I want to take on here is one that I haven’t seen covered in the mainstream press – Dorries has misled Parliament, whether consciously or accidentally as a result of grossly inadequate research.

Hansard records Dorries as saying that: “In July 2009, a Sheffield NHS trust released into secondary schools—to children from the age of 11—a pamphlet which told them that sex every day keeps the doctor away,” and repeating “This is a pamphlet going out to 11-year-olds at secondary modern schools in Sheffield.” I have received e-mails from the producers of the pamphlet confirming that it was not distributed to schoolchildren, but was instead sold to professionals such as doctors, social workers, teachers, etc (at a price of £15 for 25, for those who are curious). The pamphlet was written for adults and consistently states that education should be ‘age-appropriate’.

Incidentally, even if it were distributed to schoolchildren, it says “an orgasm a day” (not “sex every day”) and goes on to explicitly suggest sex or masturbation. Dorries’ moral panic seems to have blinded her to the actual context and content of the pamphlet; ironically it also seems to have passed her by that the same NHS trust produces a pamphlet entitled “Nobody’s Choice But Mine” covering exactly the discussions of abstinence and peer pressure that Dorries claims are unavailable to young women. One wonders whether this wouldn’t be the ideal text to use in the abstinence-education she is trying to legally mandate schools to provide…

I can’t know whether Dorries is lying through her teeth or so monumentally incompetent that she is incapable of understanding/remembering simple things like the age of pupils putting condoms on bananas (it’s been suggested that she may have confused ‘seven-year-olds’ with ‘year 7 students’), or who a pamphlet was written for and distributed to, for instance. What we can learn from this is that we should rigorously interrogate the claims made by the government that their policy is evidence-based, or that they have seen certain things with their own eyes. I can’t help but think of the incident where David Cameron claimed to have met a 40-year-old who’d spent 30 years in the Royal Navy… And this is by no means the only example.

Dorries has been asked to withdraw her remarks and apologise for misleading Parliament and the public, but she has yet to reply. Another MP has allegedly instructed staff not to reply to certain constituents after they similarly caught him out – I won’t name anybody as I can’t guarantee the claim, but I can say it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. Can we trust anything MPs say when they routinely misreport facts, fabricate statistics, etc? This isn’t just a question of cynicism and hostility to people who throw numbers around loosely – it’s a fundamental problem for our concept of democracy. Any effective democracy – one which actually reaches the right policies as a result of democratic participation – relies on an educated and informed public; much of the media and many politicians/think-tanks/lobby-groups seem intent on achieving just the opposite.


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Serious Rape Ignorance

by Anne Archist

Ken Clarke has made the headlines in the past few days due to a serious of what could be called pseudo-gaffes. I won’t go into all the details as it’s easy enough for people to read about it here, here or here, though that last one has a very misleading title at the time of linking. Hell, you could even read about it on a left-wing blog, I’m sure, though I don’t remember seeing any other than here. Rather than outline what happened, I want to give a short commentary on the lessons and implications.

The first is that Clarke evidently didn’t actually know what ‘date rape’ meant, as he later admitted; he was under the impression that ‘date rape’ was the term applied to consensual acts between a 15-year-old girl and an 18-year-old man. This is worrying in its own right, particularly in light of how often he must have heard statistics about date rape in his long career and misinterpreted them (e.g. the fact that the majority of rapes are “date rapes” in the common loose sense that they are perpetrated by acquiantances, lovers, relatives, etc – exact statistics vary depending on how you measure it, but every source I’ve seen puts it at more than 50%).

I’ve known what date rape was (insofar as these colloquial terms have strict meanings) since I was a goddamn schoolchild, so my mind is somewhat boggled at the prospect that Clarke doesn’t. Let’s be clear about this – he’s a 71-year-old Cambridge-educated man who studied and practiced law, was a Health Minister for 3 years, Health Secretary for 2 years, Home Secretary for a year, Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor for a year. In all this time nobody told him what ‘date rape’ meant?

Secondly, it seems as if Clarke is also unclear on how the law stands, though this is a bit of a hazy topic. The law actually refers to his hypothetical case of the 18-year-old and 15-year-old as “intercourse with girl between thirteen and sixteen”, not rape (unlike sex with a girl under 13, which is now called “rape of a child under 13″). ‘Rape’ used as a legal term of art, therefore, would seem to be an inaccurate application in this case. Maybe he was using the word in some kind of loose sense, but that would seem to be at odds with the point he was making, which was that the legal term means something much wider than the general usage “in conversation”.

The exact wording might seem pedantic given that it’s still an offence, whatever it’s called. However, this overlooks the actual status of those hypothetical people in relation to the law. While the man would technically be committing an offence, CPS guidelines should prevent the case from ever getting to court. Many people don’t realise the true extent of what technically counts as an offence precisely because these guidelines are constructed to give some rationality to how the law is applied, so that people aren’t arrested and imprisoned for swearing in public or otherwise subjected to ridiculously inflexible laws.

It’s therefore unrealistic for Clarke to suggest that there are large numbers of people on short sentences for having consensual sex with underage partners who are skewing the average sentence towards a shorter period, as he did. And, of course, if there are such people, maybe he should be doing something about it, as the Justice Secretary – I assume his job includes the task of preventing innocent people being convicted as well as the more frequently-acknowledged task of ensuring that guilty people are convicted…

What really makes my blood run cold in relation to this story, however, is that there has been a public outcry – led by leftists and feminists – in this instance but none in the case of Tony Benn. While a public campaign for Ken Clarke’s dismissal gains momentum (though I expect it will go the way of Theresa May’s), I’ve yet to find even a single newspaper article about the latter; kudos to Zetkin for bringing this to my attention, in fact. This would make a perfect case study of the endemic sexism and opportunism of the left – the SWP and others bay for blood when Clarke implies a difference between “forcible” rapes and other rapes, but when their darling in the House of Lords does the same they laugh along as if they’re watching a Bill Hicks “war on drugs” routine.

For those that don’t know (as I didn’t until today), Benn said at a StWC meeting that “a non-consensual relationship… [is] very different from rape, which, er, most people would understand to be the seizure by force of a woman for the gratification of man’s need” (start watching at 3.05). Note the gendered terms (he’s not generalising here, which is legitimate, he’s defining rape in gendered terms) and the reference to a “man’s need” (yuck); presumably this particular view wasn’t one he shared in the letters to his grandchildren


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Law and Order?

by Anne Archist

David Cameron once said “We are the party of law and order”. Similarly, the tory general election manifesto proclaimed that “We will rebuild confidence in the criminal justice system so that people know it is on the side of … law-abiding people”.

Let’s ignore the ridiculous implications that there’s a party of illegality and chaos or that society can be neatly divided into law-abiding people and law-breaking people (I wonder how many people have never driven over the speed limit and never ignored copyright regulations and never stolen a single thing in their lives, etc). The conclusion we might reasonably reach from such claims is that the tories, and David Cameron personally, are strongly opposed to people bending or breaking the law to serve their own interests, and that they’d safe-guard legally-guaranteed rights against official abuses and corruption. You’d be entirely justified to conclude this, but apparently you’d be wrong.

There have been some interesting and worrying reports flying around which allege that the Met are going to be firmly curtailing freedom of speech on the day of the Royal Wedding. This comes from Republic:

“Campaign group Republic has sought urgent clarification from the Metropolitan Police after Commander Christine Jones suggested that republican placards seen in the vicinity of the royal wedding would be removed under the Public Order Act (POA).
Asked by journalist Martha Kearney whether police would use the POA to confiscate “down with the royal family” placards, Jones replied “There are 364 other days of the year when people can come to London and demonstrate and frankly it’s not appropriate on the day of the royal wedding for people to come to London with that intent.””

It’s worth noting that this is clearly a misuse of the POA, which includes provisions making it an offence to “[display] any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.” I’d say people would be pushing their luck to claim that republican placards were likely to cause ‘distress’ at the best of times (and note that the law makes no mention of context other than the presence of people likely to feel a certain way about it – so any other day of the year it would be equally illegal, provided that pro-monarchists are around, unless there’s something magic about a royal wedding that makes people more likely to be harassed, alarmed, or distressed by republicanism).

Even if the placard was distressing, the POA clearly states that it is a statutory defence to show that the conduct was “reasonable”. You merely have to show that what you were doing was reasonable in order to be exhonerated in court. If we can’t get a court of law to accept that republican protest at a royal event is reasonable, we’ve got some serious problems. And why the Met would be arresting people that they knew full well probably wouldn’t get prosecuted by CPS, and wouldn’t get found guilty if they were, is beyond me unless it’s a case of politically-motivated policing. The only sensible way of interpreting the statements made by the Met, then, is that they’re going to purposefully misinterpret the law in order to prevent people from protesting. I hear no tory dissent.

In a similar vein, this article suggests that anyone seen burning the flag would be arrested under the POA (not just have their flag confiscated, but be arrested). OK, so burning the national flag might be more reasonably described as something that could cause “distress” worthy of the name (perhaps to a weak-hearted and over-emotional veteran or something). To suggest that flag-burning will be treated as an arrestable offence, however, is an utter indictment of the Met’s usual line that they “support” the right to protest and seek to “facilitate” protest. I hear no tory dissent.

There’s also reason to pause and think about the fact that Muslims Against Crusades have been denied authorisation to protest at the Abbey. Now, MAC are no friends of this blog, but the law is pretty black-and-white on this issue. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) clearly states that if a “notice” is received that complies with the regulations laid out in the act, which state what information it must contain and when it must be received, “The Commissioner must give authorisation for [a] demonstration [in the vicinity of Parliament]“.

Note the word must (I know, I’m really going slowly through these things, but I want it to be plain as day what the law actually says) – not ‘may’ or ‘might’ or ‘should’ or ‘can’, but “must“. So there are two explanations here – either MAC didn’t conform to the regulations when giving notice, or the Met have broken the law and denied them their explicitly-protected right to protest in the vicinity of Parliament. Obviously I don’t know which is the case, but nobody seems very bothered to find out. I hear no tory dissent.

Finally (as far as I can remember – you lose count of these things), in an interesting outburst of lawlessness, Cameron recently seemed to urge people to ignore local government regulations:

“To those councils that are asking small groups of neighbours for licences, insurance and other bureaucracy my message is clear:
Don’t interfere, don’t get in the way and don’t make problems where there are none. Let people get on and have fun.
And my message to everyone who wants to have a street party is: I’m having one and I want you to go ahead and have one too.”

Hilariously, Cameron seems to have unwittingly made a general principle out of a specific case – the quoted paragraph makes no mention of the royal wedding, so presumably applies to any street parties at any time under Cameron’s government. The whole tone of the article implies that if “red tape” or “bureaucracy” gets in the way, people should flout the rules. I wonder whether he’d apply the same principle to republican street parties faced with public order arrests… Once again, I hear no tory dissent.

So there you have it; far from the “party of law and order”, it seems that the tories under Cameron’s leadership are turning a blind eye to politically-motivated policing that bends and breaks the law, encouraging disobedience in the face of local government regulations, and generally approving of law-breaking when it suits their own purposes.


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Which Straw Broke the Camel’s Back?

by Anne Archist

With a title like that, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a philosophical thesis on overdetermination or something of the sort. Actually, I’m just wondering what it was that made the tories finally go absolutely batshit insane. As many of you will know by now, Westminster Council are trying to pass a local bye-law that would ban rough sleeping and the distribution of free food. You might have naively hoped that was as insane as the story got, but you’d be wrong. The story gets that little bit more insane when you realise this is the second time in several years that moves like this have been made. It gets a lot more insane when you realise that the government department responsible (Communities and Local Government, CLG) is backing the policy.

It leaves this dimension of sanity altogether when you read the following quote, from an actual real-life spokesperson for the department: “Local homeless charities and Westminster Council believe that food handouts actually encourage people to sleep rough in central London.” Yes, apparently people are so excited about a polystyrene cup of tomato soup and a ham and cheese sandwich that they’re swapping home comforts for the cold cobbles of our capital. (See that alliteration? Don’t let anyone tell you I can’t write) Of course, there’s only one problem with this theory, which is… OH MY GOD, WHAT THE FUCK, ARE THEY ACTUALLY SERIOUS!?

So with that in mind I’m going to invite great unrest readers to join me in a public campaign. Eric Pickles is the secretary of state for CLG; I therefore promise him as much soup as he can slurp (tories slurp their soup, right?) and as many sandwhiches as he can fit in his right honourable face every night that he sleeps rough in Westminster.

A few ground rules: I will provide the soup and sandwiches, and they will be of my choosing (but I promise they will be tasty); sleeping rough means actually sleeping out all night, not just knocking around until the food arrives then scarpering; sleeping rough also means on the street or a park bench – second homes and travel lodges don’t count; I’m so serious it hurts about this offer, I really will do it if he takes up the challenge and provides proof (I’m sure the news media will be willing to record the event for posterity). Let the games commence.


Filed under Current Affairs, Uncategorized

Are Cuts REALLY Necessary?

I wasn’t originally going to post this here, but then I was informed that it was rejected by the opinion pages I wrote it for after they had already published several of my articles – this follows a change of editorial staff. So, with that in mind, I thought it would be better that it gets published somewhere rather than gathering dust. It’s written for a more mainstream audience than most of my posts on this blog, but hopefully people will find it of some use. I should be able to quote sources if anyone would like me to back up the numbers.

by Anne Archist

There is not, in fact, a consensus that the current programme of cuts is necessary. Dissenters include mainstream groups like the Green Party, the public-sector union Unison, and soft-left think tank Compass alongside the more usual suspects such as Red Pepper magazine and socialist organisations too numerous to list. Some have gone so far as to suggest that no cuts whatsoever are economically necessary; I’m talking about Compass, contrary to expectations, as most socialist groups are championing cuts in defence spending at the least. The case against cuts, then, deserves a closer look than the media are currently willing to give it.

Let’s stick to round numbers and call the deficit 170 billion (it’s actually 167); just to be clear, ‘deficit’ means that the state is paying out 170 billion more than it’s receiving in tax money – don’t confuse this with national debt, which is also taking up a lot of column-inches at the moment. That means we’re borrowing 170 billion a year (although it’s worth noting that about 75% of our debt is internal – from UK institutions, not abroad). Even leading economists are clear that there’s no reason the gap has to be closed immediately, but let’s humour the right wing – let’s see if we can demolish the deficit without widening inequality and aggravating the poverty endemic in our society.

How about we start by collecting the 120 billion in tax money that’s avoided, evaded, or written off? Let’s follow that up by a hefty 40 billion garnered by returning corporation tax to their pre-1997 levels, introducing the fabled ‘robin hood’ financial transactions tax, and making the bankers’ bonus tax permanent. The last 10 billion can be closed using a combination of progressive changes to capital gains tax that would bring it into line with income tax rates, a vacant property tax, and the abolition of tax exile status for those not genuinely living and paying tax elsewhere. That’s 170 billion raised in taxes, without a single cut.

Let’s, for the sake of rhetorical flourish, stick in 10 billion of cuts. Let’s not direct them at public sector workers or services, though. Let’s direct them at trident, the ID cards and associated schemes, and money-saving through renationalising PFI hospitals. What to do with the 10 billion, you ask? Well, the abolition of tuition fees would be nice (about 6 billion), and those people clamping down on tax evasion have to come from somewhere (1 billion = 40,000 public sector median wages). There is a whole raft of other less substantial adjustments and cost-cutting measures that wouldn’t hurt anyone except the obscenely rich, offering opportunities to further tackle poverty, homelessness, social exclusion, etc. Consider that as “optional” to my plan.

So, to recap, we’ve managed to close the deficit without cuts or regressive measures like VAT hikes, and have swapped trident and the database state for free education. Of course this is just one plan, and that’s my whole point – there are alternatives. “We have no choice” is a good way of shutting down debate, but it simply isn’t true. The scope, timing, and targeting of these cuts is political and ideological. Don’t just take my word for it, read Unison’s Alternative Budget, Red Pepper’s Countering The Cuts Myths, or Compass’ In Place Of Cuts.

This would be a lot to ask of any of the major parties in the current (hysterical) political climate, but I’d actually consider this a very restrained programme in the grand scheme of things. It keeps a relaxed level of tax on the rich and business, and doesn’t even touch higher-level income tax or NI contributions, which together would yield nearly 30 billion. In reply to previous critics of my articles, I won’t shy from admitting that I have no personal affection for capitalism; on the other hand this programme doesn’t take any steps whatsoever that could convincingly be described as socialist, such as genuinely “raiding” accumulated wealth (they’ve hesitantly dipped into this in France for about half a decade) or capping public sector wages (some earn as high as 1.5 million per annum).

And yet, for some reason, I won’t be holding my breath for a call from George Osborne.


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