Having been gainfully unemployed for a number of months, I’ve recently returned to take a swim in the shark-infested, soul-destroying, disease-ridden hell hole that is the job market. It’s also the first time I’ve been, ehhem, lucky enough to be able to claim dole. This means applying for jobs and making a fortnightly trip to the JobCentre. And it sucks.
My experience back in the labour market has led me to think about the role of both the state and capital in imposing labour discipline not just on the job, but in every aspect of the labour market.
I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed some years back. It’s got its problems—being inherently social democratic, for a start—but the one part that really stuck with me was when she talked about the interview process for retail jobs like stacking shelves or taking stock. As she describes it, the interview isn’t there so much to ensure suitability for the role (these are, after all, extremely de-skilled positions), but to establish the workplace hierarchy and ensure that the candidate understands that management has a totality of control regarding everything from pay to breaks to social interaction on the shop floor.
In short, and although Ehrenreich doesn’t use such terminology, the interview process itself lays down the rules of labour discipline in the workplace.
With my partner and I both applying for these sorts of jobs, I actually think Ehrenreich hasn’t taken the argument far enough. In today's world, as part of the application, there are these utterly bullshit questions which having no bearing upon the skills needed for the role. Instead, such “surveys” are designed to ensure potential applicants understand the expectations that they will, amongst other things, shorten lunch breaks to accommodate business needs, welch on workmates for even the slightest infraction of company policy, and be available for whatever ‘reasonable’ requests management may make of them.
The JobCentre, as you can imagine, only reinforces such dynamics.
And, just like with employers, the JobCentre expects you to meticulously tick each box, show up on time, grovel with thanks, and show deference to the point of physical sickness. The JobCentre, on the other hand, can have labyrinthine rules which change with Kafkaesque regularity. They can keep you waiting weeks, fuck up, then lose your paperwork, and ask you to fill out the same form a dozen times. Too fucking bad. They’re in control, you’re not. There is no double standard so get the fuck over it.
None of this is a dig, I should add, on JobCentre staff as whole. Some are lovely, helpful people. Some aren’t. But even those who are assholes are more likely to be jobsworths enforcing company policy that they have no say in crafting than they are to be explicit class traitors. After all, they wouldn’t want to end up on the receiving end of a dole payment.
Then, there are the posters. I have literally never felt so patronised in my life. And I’m not one of the people who uses ‘literally’ to mean figuratively. I mean like literally, literally. They’re where those god-awful motivational posters go to die. And then come back to haunt you at a point in your life when the last thing you need is to hear someone telling you, high school American football coach style, that all it takes is some perseverance and you too can be arranging fruit at Tesco or selling fucking phone upgrades from some unholy call centre in the heart of a Grimsby industrial estate.
The posters, in their hellish Panopticon of shame and revulsion, contribute towards an entire JobCentre experience which leaves you feeling at once confused and patronised, alienated and belittled, desperate and angry, demoralised and… You get the point.
Oh, and lest we forget the constant references to benefit fraud. When you call the JobCentre you are given the option to report benefit fraud before you are given the option to start a claim. Such priorities are, not surprisingly, again brought to light by a poster on the wall which warns that JobCentre “security agents” will track you down if dare commit benefit fraud. As if the money and time spent on “security agents” would in any way would justify the relatively very little money which people scam off the dole.
Beyond the psychological aspect of all of this, there’s the material. For example, since my partner and I are making a joint claim, we get thirty quid less in total than if we applied separately—which of course we can’t. And that money? It only goes into one account. What, you’re in a patriarchal, controlling relationship with a drunken husband who’s the main claimant? Oh well. Fuck you. We don't care, dole scum.
Let’s not forget government expectations on how far you should be willing to travel to work: 90 minutes. Each way.
And, according to the sanctions which came in last week, you can lose your benefit for up to 156 weeks if you “leave a job voluntarily or lose a job due to misconduct”. I mean, we all know how fucked it is that you can lose benefit if you “fail to take part in a mandatory work activity program”, but losing your dole for misconduct (and not even gross misconduct) or for leaving a job? That has some seriously dangerous implications.
The language around such sanctions has always been vague, but a codifying of such draconian rules demonstrates further the way in which class gains like unemployment benefits can be turned around and used as levers of class control.
Finally, while at the JobCentre, my partner and I had the pleasure of overhearing a conversation between a manager and a claimant being put on workfare. What employers value, apparently, is not education but “experience”. It’s an opportunity for “valuable insider knowledge” and “proving yourself on the job”.
Now, we’re still a while away from workfare, but it is worth noting that a large part of our job searching record log is dedicated to listing the agencies to which we've signed up. As if that's a normal part of job search... Why would you expect direct employment? What do you think this is? The 1960s, you stupid hippy?
This explicit push towards agency work and workfare points to a state policy of precarious employment.
A comrade in SolFed describes workfare as “state intervention in the labour market for the benefit of capital”. I like that. Slightly academic it may be, but it’s succinct. Obviously, there’s a major concern workfare will depress wages and lead to employers filling vacant positions with claimants whom they don’t have to pay, reducing the pool of jobs for everyone.
But perhaps we’re missing a trick. After all, the genesis of capitalism wasn’t low wages. It was primitive accumulation combined with the ability of newly empowered employing class to impose a labour discipline on a newly dispossessed working class.
So, perhaps the goal of workfare, short-term and zero hours contracts, agency employment, and privatisation isn’t first and foremost to reduce wages or even increase the reserve army of labour. Perhaps what we’re seeing is a concerted state-capital effort to begin a renewed cycle of increased labour discipline across the job market and, more generally, across the class.
And if that is indeed what’s going on, the case for a class-wide response to such measures is that much stronger.