Thursday, November 11, 2010

Iain Duncan Smith and the Logic of the Workhouse

Ghetto blaster: IDS in the hood
Even as the clean-up got underway at Tory HQ following yesterday's student invasion, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith was adding fuel to the fire of the coming social explosion. By announcing the final cutting away of the post-war welfare safety net, Duncan Smith is doing the very opposite of 'making work pay' - one of his stated aims. On the contrary, his reforms are a calculated attack on all working class people.

Under Duncan Smith's plans, jobless claimants will be expected to undertake thirty hours of unpaid community work per week or lose their entitlement to benefits for six months. Job Centre advisors will also be pressured into imposing sanctions on those who fail to apply for jobs that have been referred to them.

In her New Statesman blog, Laurie Penny emphasised the absurdity of Duncan Smith's pretensions:
"As strategies for tackling poverty go it's not subtle. In fact, it's roughly equivalent to a quack doctor plastering a typhoid sufferer with leeches or cutting a hole in a patient's head to cure a migraine. This trepanation of the welfare system is supposed to "get Britain working" by returning the poor to the "habit" of nine to five labour -- alongside savage cuts to housing benefit and Jobseeker's Allowance that will apparently "incentivise" them towards work that isn't there."
Indeed, in six short months the ConDem coalition has already done so much to ensure that the work "isn't there". In the wake of Chancellor George Osbourne's recent Comprehensive Spending Review, it is being predicted that half a million jobs could be lost in the private sector, on top of the half a million Osbourne himself announced in the public sector. Even these figures do not take into account the likelihood of a further downturn in the global economy.

In this dire context, it makes sense to see Duncan Smith's attacks as being part and parcel of the wider ruling class onslaught. As I argued in back in May:
"Despite his professed concern for the UK's "broken society", Duncan Smith wants to cut the welfare bill, and - perhaps more importantly from the ruling class point of view - exert downward pressure on wages, by having many more desperate people fighting for each vacancy."
More than this, the precise nature of Duncan Smith's proposals regarding "community work" shows that he is acting on behalf of the elite. This "community work" is not being introduced as a new, waged labour scheme. It will effectively be slave labour, backed up by the very real threat of starvation. It seems possible that belt-tightening local councils may want to 'employ' these reluctant volunteers, rather than paying even the minimum wage. Meanwhile, waged workers in similar fields will face downward pressure on their wages, because some people will be doing their job for free.

The capitalist class as a whole wins when more people are competing for fewer jobs. As Marx observed in 1847:
"The main purpose of the bourgeois in relation to the worker is, of course, to have the commodity labour as cheaply as possible, which is only possible when the supply of this commodity is as large as possible in relation to the demand for it, i.e., when the overpopulation is the greatest."
When Marx wrote that sentence, the workhouse system was in full swing in Britain, following the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. Under the Act, "all cases were to be 'offered the house', and nothing else". In other words, unemployed people faced virtual inprisonment, slavery, and separation from their families, because that was the most profitable arrangement for capital. British workhouses were only abolished in 1948, by the Labour government that was implementing post-war concessions to a radicalised working class.

In this current period of capitalist crisis - which is taking place under conditions of advanced globalisation and cut-throat competition between rival governments - red, blue and yellow politicians are marching the working class back, and slashing our living standards. However, as yesterday's events at Millbank Tower demonstrate, those who sow the wind will reap the storm.

In the final analysis, there are capitalist excuses, and there is communist logic. The capitalist contention is that there are people not working (to the profit of the system), and they must therefore be forced to do so. The communist position is that capitalism cannot provide decent living standards for the majority of the population. It must therefore be replaced by a system in which everyone is given a real opportunity to contribute, and receives a good standard of living in return.
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