Editorial: The ‘new’ workfare schemes in historical and class context

A Boycott Workfare banner

The editorial from Aufheben #21, which is available in print now, discussing the current workfare schemes and the struggle against them.

The storm of public outrage expressed against workfare schemes in February and March this year was quite unprecedented. People being forced to work for their benefits featured heavily in the news for weeks. This was perhaps surprising. The illegitimacy of attacks on benefits has usually been a marginal issue even in the ‘political’/campaigning scenes1 and the labour movement,2 let alone the mainstream press.

In the face of this hostile ‘public opinion’, the government made concessions over sanctions for some of the workfare schemes.3 Around the same time, a succession of the big companies involved - TK Maxx, Sainsbury’s, Waterstones, Shelter, Marie Curie, 99p Stores, Maplin, Oxfam, Mind, BHS, Burger King, HMV, and Boots - publicly announced they were pulling out of some of the schemes.4 Afraid for their reputations, they didn’t want to be seen to be ‘exploiting the vulnerable’ by using compulsory (or near compulsory) work experience ‘placements’ that did not lead to jobs or constitute real training. Workfare had become a national scandal. Tesco supermarket was the cause célèbre – though their recanting was only partial since they only pulled out of the high profile Work Experience scheme but not the Work Programme.

For those of us who had for many years been involved in small and at times lonely campaigns around the dole and benefit cuts more generally, there was a mixture of surprised delight tinged with irritation to see this sudden wave of public indignation and its dramatic consequences. On the one hand, given that our involvement in struggles against workfare had in the past been criticised by some for parochialism5 or for the supposed narrowness of our concerns, there was a sense of vindication. There was also the excitement, of course, of seeing the government defensive and vulnerable, and beating a rapid retreat in the face of the opposition to the schemes. On the other hand, we noted that many of the howls of outrage at the workfare schemes reflected a complete lack of historical perspective. Workfare schemes specifically, and the disgusting treatment of the unemployed more generally, have a very long history of course. Forms of workfare – required work for unemployment benefits – have been used (or attempted) on many previous occasions in the last century, though they have a much longer history of use in the USA than in the UK.6 In the UK, we can trace early versions and indeed the basis of today’s schemes to the Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA), which was introduced in 1996. A pilot workfare scheme, Project Work, was introduced in 29 towns by the Tories in the same year, and continued under New Labour. In one of these towns (Brighton), the scheme was badly holed by what police and Jobcentre managers in Brighton called a ‘thuggish’ campaign,7 but it only ended when it was superseded by the more ambitious (and expensive), New Deal in 1998.8 The current government’s Work Programme workfare scheme is based upon, and inherited much from, New Labour’s Flexible New Deal.9 Rather than a new development, therefore, the ‘new’ schemes represent a recurring theme in recent welfare policies.

In the welter of news scandals and indignant commentaries on the injustice of workfare, this utter lack of historical perspective was closely related to an almost total absence of interest in the class context of the recent developments. Before analysing this class context more closely, however, we should recognize that, alongside the continuities with previous schemes for the unemployed, there are indeed some features of the current programmes that distinguish them from past attempts to implement workfare.

There are perhaps two important differences from the schemes of the past in the current crop of workfare schemes. The first difference has to do with the place of workfare providers in the economy. Back in the 1980s and 90s, the companies running the ‘back to work’ schemes were either small businesses or charity wings of multinationals. For example, the multinational GrandMet (now part of Diageo) set up a company that later became ‘Tomorrow’s People’ as a response to the riots of the 1980s.10 It was a ‘social conscience’ decision, based on fears of deteriorating social cohesion, not a business decision to make money. Now, by contrast, firms like A4e and Working Links who are involved with ‘getting people back to work’, both directly (by providing the experience of work discipline as part of ‘mandatory work activity’) and indirectly (acting in effect as an employment agency or go-between, through involvement in the Work Programme) treat workfare schemes as part of their core business. Indeed, there has developed a whole sector of the economy that depends entirely on the massive contracts to run these schemes. This in turn is just one example of the huge growth in government outsourcing more generally as a profitable industry in its own right.11 The other point to make about this, of course, is that the individuals running the companies getting these multi-million pound contracts to deliver services that might in the past have been run from the Jobcentre have in many cases been shown to have extremely close personal links to both the Labour and the Coalition government.12

The other difference with the past is the sheer brazenness of the new versions of workfare. As we have stated previously,13 with Project Work and the Flexible New Deal, placements were sought largely in the voluntary sector. In the present case, however, workfare has been extended into many areas that previously would not have been touched for fear of being attacked by the unions for job substitution. Now, however, it is not only high street shops which are involved, where it might be expected that organized opposition from workers would be relatively weak, but also public service organizations including Southern Railway and the health service.14 Indeed, far from opposing the schemes, in the Post Office, the Communication Workers’ Union have actually supported this attack upon the wages and conditions of their own members!15

Partly, perhaps, it was this sheer brazenness that served to catapult cases of people on the current workfare schemes into the mainstream consciousness. While a number of activist campaign groups had already been busy on the issue for several months, it was the discovery by middle class journalists that workfare was being imposed upon people very like their own graduate children that led to the acres of coverage. The blatant Tesco advertisement for a job at ‘JSA plus travel expenses’;16 the exposé of them and other supermarkets for their extensive and cynical use of ‘work experience’ placements that consisted of little more than shelf stacking and offered no real training element; the legal action taken by a graduate whose career prospects were damaged when she was forced to work for Poundland:17 all these scandals fuelled the indignation in the liberal press and the associated Twittersphere. Following the initial flurry of media interest, the ‘Right to Work’ campaign (a hideously-named front organization for the Socialist Workers’ Party) cleverly jumped on the fast-moving bandwagon by occupying a Tesco store near the House of Commons in an effective publicity stunt.18

The middle class interests of those who led the mass media campaign against (aspects of) the workfare schemes was reflected in the framing of their critique, which was almost entirely one of moral indignation about the treatment of a minority of individuals, and lacked recognition of the wider class context of what was happening.

In this individualistic, moral critique of workfare, the unemployed claimants forced onto the scheme were the unfortunate, vulnerable victims.19 The villains in this tragedy were easy to identify, for not only were A4e and Working Links trousering huge contract fees from their role as middlemen in the schemes, they were also found to be engaging in various fraudulent practices to top up these profits - for example by claiming fees for placements that they hadn’t provided, being paid twice for the same person, getting people to clear their own offices as a ‘placement’, and so on.20

While of course there is a moment of truth in this purely moral critique – forced work-for-dole under the guise of ‘training’ or ‘work experience’ being an outrageous attack on, and indignity for, those subjected to it – it is partial and limited. One of the central problems with it is that it concedes far too much to some of the government’s own claimed justifications for the scheme and the individualistic ideology of the ‘deserving-versus-undeserving poor’ that it has promoted in order to gain legitimacy for its wider attacks on benefits. Indeed, it was precisely because some concessions were made in relation to some of the more flagrantly immoral of the practices (lack of real training, some of the sanctions, the lack of jobs at the end) that the fuss died down by April this year, and the schemes have continued with perhaps greater claims for legitimacy.

The ‘moral’ critique – the emphasis on the unjust treatment simply of unemployed individuals sent on the scheme – fails to challenge the discourse of ‘helping the unemployed’ that frames the government’s workfare programmes. This is precisely because it keeps the focus on the unemployed individual rather than the wider class context of the schemes. For example, the objection made to some of the schemes and employers for not providing genuine training or work experience, with the demand that they do, implies that such training or work experience might be a good thing – as if to give the underpaid individual some training that improves her position in the jobs market a little makes up for the fact that her ‘placement’ takes the place of what would otherwise be someone’s more properly paid job.

Some of the limits of framing the critique of workfare simply in terms of the (good or bad) treatment of (some) unemployed individuals can be illustrated by the experiences we have had picketing high street shops involved in the schemes. At our pickets of Poundland and Holland & Barrett, the managers sought to defend themselves by wheeling out an employee they said had started on the workfare scheme (as unpaid ‘work experience’) and then got a real job with them at the end. The individuals themselves (both of them) readily corroborated this version of events, adding for good measure that they welcomed the scheme and that their experience demonstrated that individuals who really wanted to work could now do so, thanks to this scheme, meaning that those who did not (who were not there to speak for themselves, of course) were to blame for their plight. Of course, who among the small minority who have gone on to paid jobs after workfare placements would turn round in such a situation and say they had been duped by the Jobcentre, A4e and Poundland et al.? From the individual perspective of these people, the schemes are completely morally justified. So, from a class perspective, the purely moral critique fails; or it ends up giving away the class prejudice underlying some of it (‘well, it may be ok for someone like you, but it is not right that my daughter, who has a degree, should have to stack shelves in a supermarket’), something seized on, albeit in a distorted way, by the minister defending the schemes.21

If the essence of what’s wrong with workfare is not the ‘immoral’ treatment of unemployed individuals, what is it? The word ‘slavery’ has been bandied about by many of the critics.22 Within a capitalism system the functions of workfare schemes may be similar to that of having pockets of slavery; but this slogan lacks precision, for workfare workers are not chattels in the same way as slaves.23

What about ‘exploitation’, another popular characterization of what’s wrong with workfare?24 While it may be true technically that workfare is exploitation (people paid less than the value their labour creates), this works, like ‘slavery’, more as an emotive slogan than a proper analysis. For, if workfare work is exploitation, does this mean that most other jobs do not constitute exploitation?

In fact, the immoral treatment of most of the unemployed forced onto the workfare placements is a means to an end. The unemployed are being used as an instrument, and it is the ends to which they are being put which is the nub of the issue. The real problem with workfare is the pressure it puts on existing jobs and wages.25 It creates pressure both directly and indirectly. Directly, the threat that it poses is job substitution; there are a number of reports that paid jobs are being replaced by workfare placements.26 Indirectly, workfare allows employers to cut back on paid overtime, to resist wage demands, to expect harder work from their existing employees, and so on: why should they make any concessions to you and your workmates if they know they can get someone else to do the same as you for next to nothing? The case against workfare therefore is essentially one of class interests. In any market giving some of a commodity away free will drag down the overall price. So it is with labour-power. Workfare is sometimes considered just a claimants’ issue – by both claimants and workers. But the struggle against workfare is not really a ‘dole struggle’; workfare is more an attack on existing workers than it is on the unemployed.

As we noted recently, while the current crop of workfare schemes were proposed and introduced before the crisis,27 the age of austerity has not seen any slackening in the government’s enthusiasm for these schemes – quite the opposite, in fact.28 Workfare schemes are not about reducing unemployment. They are about making unemployment work for the economy. As we have argued, in the 1990s workfare schemes and other attacks on benefits were introduced in an attempt to make the unemployed function as a proper reserve army of labour, ‘skilling’ them up with basic labour-market discipline (such as getting haircuts and the ability to get out of bed in the morning), which had fallen away with the long-term unemployment of the 1980s. All the time people on the dole were ‘recalcitrant’ and ‘autonomous’, they exerted no pressure on those in work to work harder to keep their jobs.29 The result was a sellers’ market. The purpose of workfare now is to prevent a repeat of the 1980s, when so many people became disconnected from the labour market and the unemployed failed to function as a reserve army of labour. This is clear from the fact that at least some of the schemes are not about real work experience but about learning work discipline.30

Workfare is just one part of a massive programme of welfare reform, backed up by an unprecedented ideological attack on the ‘undeserving poor’. This attack was launched by the Conservative-LibDem coalition and Blairite allies (such as Frank Field) as soon as they came to office. The ideological attack had two prongs. In the first place, there was the attempt to create division through a campaign around so-called benefit fraud. Second was the propaganda stirred up against those supposedly getting large amounts of benefits compared to the wages of those in work. Instead of this being a narrative about appalling low wages, the government ideologues sought to class ‘greedy’ claimants alongside the hated greedy rich bankers – both were getting ‘something for nothing’ – in relation to the ‘squeezed middle’, who were encouraged to link their predicament to the lifestyle of their neighbours on benefits (many of whom, ministers said, didn’t open their curtains till the afternoon).31

In this ideological attack, and even in the face of global recession, explanations for unemployment in terms of economic conditions, which were accepted in the 1980s, were displaced by individualistic and hence moralistic explanations. This focus on the unemployed individual – whether as victim, beneficiary or moral reprobate - is part of bourgeois ideology, accepted as common sense, which hides our relation with each other as a class, through the wage relation. Many of the justifications given for workfare are built upon this ideological individualism. Thus, while some of the schemes may serve to move the occasional unemployed individual from the dole into (very often low paid) work, these examples are taken by supporters of the scheme as indicative of the way that the problem of mass unemployment might be addressed, buying into the myth that unemployment is caused by the unemployed, rather than by the current crisis.

In this issue of Aufheben, we analyse the nature of the euro crisis and show both how it relates to the financial crisis that began in 2008 and how the European bourgeoisie are now trying to use it to their own advantage. Likewise, in the UK, there is a long-term attempt to restructure the labour market,32 and the crisis has been used to accelerate this process, reconstructing the relations of work in new, harsher, terms, while maintaining or increasing profits, particularly in the financial sector as well as creating new locations of accumulation for the government’s friends running welfare-to-work ‘consultancies’.

Together, the propaganda war on benefit claimants and the ‘need for cuts’ brought on by the crisis, have been used to justify savage attacks on a range of benefits (not just for the unemployed, but also the sick and disabled and even more to the poor in work through attacks on housing benefit and working tax credits). These operate as the stick, while ‘help’ in the form of the (actually very costly) workfare schemes are a kind of carrot that are together reshaping the unemployed into active jobseekers of any job.

In this issue, our article on the possibility of ‘green capitalism’ raises in passing the prospect of ‘green jobs’, which may be presented as socially useful and for that reason morally easier to include as part of workfare schemes than shelf-stacking placements for rich multinationals like Tesco.33 The framework for such a use of workfare already exists in the form of the nascent Community Action Programme, which could be seen as complementing the ongoing attacks on jobs and conditions in the public sector. Indeed, it is precisely where workfare jobs are presented as socially useful that perhaps their biggest threat lies. Working for charities and other third sector organizations involved in such activities as ‘caring for the environment’ (including street sweeping, parks and gardens) offers the government and the employers not only inculcation into the work discipline necessary for a dynamic labour market, but also the opportunity of saving money by getting rid of whole local government departments.

Two years ago, in our last article on the attack on benefits and the rise of workfare, we discussed some of the problems in organizing against these attacks.34 We pointed out then that the welfare reforms in general and the workfare schemes in particular were an attack on the working class as a whole, and that therefore the resistance should reflect that fact. Since that time, the struggles against workfare that we have been involved in have become bigger and, in a sense, the targets easier. As participants pointed out at a recent national conference against workfare,35 while two years ago the target was the offices of A4e and others, now it is high street stores who are vulnerable not only to attacks on their nice image but their profits, through people standing outside encouraging others not to shop there. As we found with Project Work, it doesn’t take a very large number of people sometime to have a very damaging effect on these scumbags.

While there are many businesses involved in workfare, there continue to be companies pulling out of, or reluctant to get involved in, the schemes;36 and, now that the mass media furore has died down, this seems to be down to people approaching them directly.37 Holland and Barrett has been the focus of a national campaign by the Solidarity Federation.38 As we go to press, it has just been announced that they are pulling out of the scheme, not because of any shame over their involvement, but because they didn’t like so many groups of people standing outside their shops discouraging their customers and ruining their image. This victory is one of the most high profile and is significant in that the company themselves attributed it to the pickets (rather than to other forms of campaigning).39

Further, the fact that many of the schemes work on the basis of payment by results, and that the continuing recession means that there will not after all be the jobs to put people into, means that there is another point of vulnerability in the programme, for some of the scheme providers will be forced to pull out, allowing us to concentrate pressure on the remainder.

  • 1. Back in 1998, we complained that some people who, as ‘full time activists’, were involved in struggles that depended on the dole for their very existence paradoxically did little to resist attacks on the dole. See Dole autonomy versus the re-imposition of work: Analysis of the current tendency to workfare in the UK. http://libcom.org/library/dole-autonomy-aufheben
  • 2. Back in the 1920s and 30s, the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement was rejected by the TUC and the Labour Party. See Dole autonomy, footnote 6.
  • 3. For example, they lifted the sanction (loss of benefits) for leaving a workfare placement on the Work Experience scheme. See the Guardian, 29th February 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/feb/29/ministers-drop-sanctions-work-experience
  • 4. Workfare takes place as part of five schemes: Work Experience, Sector-Based Work Academies, Mandatory Work Activity, the Community Action Programme, and the Work Programme. The best guide to the schemes is Abolish workfare: The Solidarity Federation’s guide to the government’s unpaid work schemes. http://www.solfed.org.uk/sites/default/files/uploads/workfare_pamphlet_v2_0.pdf
  • 5. The workfare scheme Project Work was piloted in Brighton and became a focus of our struggles and our articles. See Dole autonomy.
  • 6. The workfare programmes in the USA, which have functioned to displace paid employment in parts of the public sector in New York and Wisconsin, have been the model for some of the schemes in the UK. See the Dole autonomy appendix, Workfare: the USA case (1998). http://libcom.org/library/appendix-workfare-usa-case
  • 7. In reality a combination of pickets of charity shops and effective alliances with militants among Jobcentre workers.
  • 8. As we have pointed out previously, while the stated rationale for the New Deal was to help unemployed people into work through enhancing their ‘marketability’ (with the implication that mass unemployment was due to the poor quality of unemployed individuals), the government’s own evidence showed that it was not the New Deal at all but the upturn in the economy in the early 2000s that reduced the unemployment figures. See Dole autonomy and work re-imposition: An epilogue (1999). http://libcom.org/library/aufheben/pamphlets-articles/dole-autonomy-and-work-re-im-position-an-epilogue
  • 9. The Flexible New Deal was introduced in 2009, 11 years after the original New Deal schemes, and placed more emphasis on coercion rather than training.
  • 10. A second wave of scandal broke when it was found that workfare workers were involved in some of the stewarding duties during the Golden Jubilee weekend in June. The organization administering the scheme in this case was Tomorrow’s People. See ‘Unemployed bussed in to steward river pageant’, Guardian, 4th June 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/jun/04/jubilee-pageant-unemployed
  • 11. There are numerous big businesses involved in the provision of benefits services and other government functions. They include Atos (running the notorious ‘work capability’ tests and the even more infamous NHS database software, and now involved in the Community Action Programme and Work Programme as well), G4S (prisons, policing, Work Programme), Capita (housing benefit software cock ups), and Maximus (Flexible New Deal, Work Programme).
  • 12. Private Eye has documented many of these links in detail. Just one example: Quiller Consultants, owned by prime minister David Cameron’s constituency party chair Lord Chadlington, and run by lobbyist George Bridges, has been hired by A4e who have been given huge sums by Cameron’s government. See Private Eye #1315 (1st June, 2012) and passim.
  • 13. ‘The renewed imposition of work in the era of austerity: Prospects for resistance’ in Aufheben #19, 2011. libcom.org/library/renewed-imposition-work-era-austerity-prospects-resistance .
  • 14. ‘Unpaid jobseekers to deliver patient care in three hospitals’. Guardian, 21st May 2012
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/may/21/unpaid-jobseekers-deliver-patient-care
  • 15. See ‘No to workfare at Royal Mail’, Boycott Workfare, March 2012. http://www.boycottworkfare.org/?p=855
  • 16. ‘Tesco drops ‘jobs for benefits’ ad for Suffolk store’, BBC. 16th February 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-suffolk-17066420
  • 17. ‘Graduate 'made to stack shelves' seeks Judicial Review’, Public Interest Lawyers.
    http://www.publicinterestlawyers.co.uk/news_details.php?id=200
  • 18. ‘Tesco job advert protest closes store in Westminster’, BBC News, 18th February 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-17084634 - The SWP largely dropped the issue of workfare after this stunt, moving on to more promising publicity and recruitment opportunities. The SWP did not seem to mind that ‘Right to work’ is the name of anti-union legislation in the USA, banning the closed shop. See right-to-work.org
  • 19. The Daily Mail, traditionally one of the newspapers most ready to attack ‘unemployed scroungers’, now condemned this treatment of the ‘vulnerable’, comparing it with the Nazis! See ‘This is not wartime Nazi Germany and Cameron's attacks on the vulnerable and needy must be stopped’, Mail Online, 20th February 2012. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2102484/This-wartime-Nazi-Germany-Camerons-attacks-vulnerable-needy-stopped.html
  • 20. ‘DWP 'did not do enough to stop fraud among welfare-to-work companies'’, Guardian, 16th May 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/may/16/dwp-fraud-welfare-work-companies While the Guardian and BBC coverage brought to public attention some of these corrupt practices, as well as the staggeringly large pay-packet of A4e chief Emma Harrison, it was Private Eye which had been pursuing this scandal long before it was fashionable, and continues to provide the dirt on these companies. See for example Eyes 1313 p. 10, and 1314 p. 29 and passim. The important point here is that that many of the petty frauds taking place in A4e’s offices have occurred because they were unable to find enough real placements.
  • 21. ‘Workfare that shames UK plc or a leftwing plot by the job snobs?’, Guardian, 28th February, 2012. guardian.co.uk/society/2012/feb/28/workfare-uk-plot-job-snobs
  • 22. ‘Phone-a-slave’, Daily Mash, 27th February 2012. http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/business/jobless-offered-free-glimpse-into-very-slightly-better-future-201202274944
  • 23. For a more developed rant against the use of the word ‘slavery’ in anti-workfare campaigns, see ‘On slavery’, June 2012 at http://aprogramandrifles.tumblr.com/
  • 24. See for example the posters in this action ‘Edinburgh Tescos invaded by anti-workfare protestors’, Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty, March, 2012. http://edinburghagainstpoverty.org.uk/node/70
  • 25. Of course, the class analysis of the workfare scheme also has a moral dimension; but since our moral condemnation is based upon that class analysis, rather than an alternative to it, our indignation has broader targets: the ‘victims’ who we argue have been wronged by the implementation of the workfare schemes, are the wider working class, not just the individuals forced onto the schemes.
  • 26. ‘Unpaid jobseekers to deliver patient care in three hospitals’, Guardian, 21st May 2012 (op. cit.); ‘My job was replaced by a workfare placement’, Guardian, 3rd March 2012. guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/mar/03/20/job-replaced-workfare-placement ‘Back to the workhouse’, Guardian, 8th June, 2012. guardian.co.uk/society/2012/jun/08/jubilee-stewards-unpaid-labour-growing .
  • 27. The Flexible New Deal was planned before the crisis, and mandatory work activity was used for the young unemployed and many others before the recession.
  • 28. ‘The renewed imposition of work in the era of austerity’, Aufheben #19, 2011, op. cit.
  • 29. ‘Unemployed recalcitrance and welfare restructuring in the UK today’, Aufheben, 2000, in Stop the clock! Critiques of the new social workhouse. http://libcom.org/library/aufheben/pamphlets-articles/stop-the-clock-critiques-of-the-new-social-workhouse/unemployed-recalcitrance-and-welfare-re
  • 30. This is the case with ‘Mandatory work activity’.
  • 31. What is ideological about the idea of the lazy, undeserving poor of course is not only that it creates division but also the work ethic it promotes (i.e., ‘work as inherently good’). It is purely in the bosses’ interests that everyone seeks work, works hard and values this hard work. What’s in our interests is workers (unemployed and employed) refusing to work for shit wages and refusing to compete.
  • 32. Other evidence of this restructuring of the labour market is to be found in the rationalization of prison labour, which is now being brought into the mainstream labour market. See ‘Plan for cheap prison work 'may cost thousands of jobs'’, Independent, 5th June 2012. independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/plan-for-cheap-prison-work-may-cost-thousands-of-jobs-7815140.html. A recent commentary can be found here: libcom.org/blog/new-social-workhouse-16022012 .
  • 33. A greater emphasis on ‘socially useful’ workfare placements would win over some of the current left-liberal critics like Polly Toynbee, for example, who attacks DWP minister Chris Grayling now but states that she backed Project Work for precisely this reason. http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/the-tories-were-right-workfare-really-works-1280874.htm
  • 34. ‘The renewed imposition of work in the era of austerity’, Aufheben #19, 2011, op. cit. Problems of organization in resistance to benefits attacks is also discussed in section 2 of ‘Theoretical criticism and practical overthrow fifteen years on: A reflection’ in Aufheben #15, 2007. libcom.org/library/theory-practice-recent-struggles-brighton .
  • 35. ‘How do we break workfare – National Conference held on May 26’, Brighton Benefits Campaign. http://brightonbenefitscampaign.wordpress.com/2012/06/03/how-do-we-break-workfare-national-conference-held-on-may-26/
  • 36. Secretary for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith recently told parliament ‘One of the big problems we had was that some people, including the Labour party and those anarchists, have tried to stop those companies from doing that [i.e., providing workfare placements]’, June 2012, from Hansard. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm120625/debtext/120625-0001.htm
  • 37. We heard recently about a chain of pubs in Hastings that have pulled out after being approached by campaigners; and Boycott Workfare announced in June that the Body Shop have pulled out: http://www.boycottworkfare.org/?p=1025
  • 38. http://www.solfed.org.uk/?q=taxonomy/term/989
  • 39. ‘Holland & Barrett pulls out of jobseekers' scheme’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/jul/06/holland-and-barrett-jobseekers-scheme Guardian, 6th July 2012.
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Editorial: The ‘new’ workfare schemes in historical and class context489.49 KB

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Johnny
Aug 3 2012 11:33

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  • Rather than a new development, therefore, the ‘new’ schemes represent a recurring theme in recent welfare policies. In the news scandals and indignant commentaries on the injustice of workfare, this lack of historical perspective was closely related to an absence of interest in the class context.

Comments

Caiman del Barrio
Aug 5 2012 12:21

I broadly agree with this article inasmuch as it seeks to remove the moralistic, Toynbee-esque moralism from the Workfare debate, but a couple of the ideas in here are AWL-esque in their provocative contrarianism. This, for example:

Quote:
But the struggle against workfare is not really a ‘dole struggle’; workfare is more an attack on existing workers than it is on the unemployed.

Sorry, but what a load of absolute shite. What is wrong with encouraging the unemployed to organise against the imposition of forced, effectively unpaid, work? Surely the point is to converge the two strata of the same class (claimants & workers) in their shared interest of defeating Workfare, rather than dismiss the threat it represents to claimants?

Why must Aufheben under-emphasise the claimant experience? What is this perennial fear amongst Marxists of dealing with the unemployed? How long before we eradicate this determinist rejection of claimant organising?

Jim Clarke
Aug 5 2012 15:02

The article doesn't argue against claimants organising at all, I'm not sure where you've got that from and I've never heard anybody accuse Aufheben of under-emphasising the claimant experience or rejecting claimant organising before.

Fall Back
Aug 5 2012 15:39

Caiman - did you properly read the article or just skim it? Because:

Quote:
Surely the point is to converge the two strata of the same class (claimants & workers) in their shared interest of defeating Workfare, rather than dismiss the threat it represents to claimants?

is the exact point it argues.

Caiman del Barrio
Aug 5 2012 16:16
Fall Back wrote:
Caiman - did you properly read the article or just skim it?

No obviously I just skimmed it cos that's the best way to make claims about stuff. roll eyes

Can we have some respectful, honest debates here please? Grant me at least the credit of reading it, thinking about it then replying. I mean, I know I'm breaking the 4th Libcom Commandment here by criticising Aufheben but still...

I understand that in theory Aufheben would probably be in favour of claimants organising alongside workers, but quotes like that would seem to indicate a belittling of claimants' experience and potential for organisign in favour of employed workers, on the grounds of their respective strategic positions WRT capital. This is a reasonable enough assertion - with arguments in favour and against - but let's have it out in the open no?

And, for the record, Workfare is a massive attack on claimants, moreso than most workers (at the moment anyway). To deny this is absurd.

Steven.
Aug 5 2012 16:23
Caiman del Barrio wrote:
And, for the record, Workfare is a massive attack on claimants, moreso than most workers (at the moment anyway). To deny this is absurd.

sorry, but I don't think it is.

I mean look at unemployment as a general phenomenon. Was unemployment created to attack the minority of workers who are unemployed? Or is it used to attack the working class as a whole by keeping down the wages of employed workers by the maintenance of a reserve army of potential replacement workers?

Of course for the people who are unemployed it is much more significant in terms of their personal circumstances, however Aufheben are not talking about who suffers most on a personal level, but at whom the attack is mostly directed.

Fall Back
Aug 5 2012 16:40
Caiman del Barrio wrote:
No obviously I just skimmed it cos that's the best way to make claims about stuff. roll eyes

I was giving you the benefit of the doubt. If you read the article and missed that, then you've fundamentally misunderstood the entire article. You picked out a single sentence lout of context from the rest of the article and even then misunderstood it. To assume you had briefly scanned it was the best case scenario, really.

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Can we have some respectful, honest debates here please?

Well, for a start "respectful, honest debates" would includes not snipping quotes out of context. Eg, the quote you pulled up above was immediately prefaced with "Workfare is sometimes considered just a claimants’ issue". ie, the quote you pulled was directly responding to a (destructive and problematic) view that is prevalent in both the anti-workfare movement and the wider population.

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Grant me at least the credit of reading it, thinking about it then replying. I mean, I know I'm breaking the 4th Libcom Commandment here by criticising Aufheben but still...

It's also indistinguishable from the de facto solfed position, and eg all of our interventions to the workfare conference, stuff on our website, our publicity etc.

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I understand that in theory Aufheben would probably be in favour of claimants organising alongside workers

Since Aufheben is half made up of lifestyle doleys and have been significant in pushing for this direction in the national campaign, it's hardly "in theory" - in terms of practical linking up between claimants and workers against workfare, I can't really think of anyone (apart from us wink) who has done more.

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but quotes like that would seem to indicate a belittling of claimants' experience and potential for organisign in favour of employed workers, on the grounds of their respective strategic positions WRT capital. This is a reasonable enough assertion - with arguments in favour and against - but let's have it out in the open no?

No, it's not. I mean, they might even think this, but that's not what is even being argued here. All they are saying is that the imposition of workfare isn't about being nasty to claimants, cutting the welfare bill, harassing the unemployed (even though it may well do many of these things) - it's part of a wider restructuring of the labour market.

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And, for the record, Workfare is a massive attack on claimants, moreso than most workers (at the moment anyway). To deny this is absurd.

I'm somewhat bemused by this tbh. Is this really the experience you've come out of the workfare campaign with? I'm genuinely shocked you're coming out with this - and I'm not just using this for rhetorical effect - I was put out enough by liberals saying the same thing at the workfare conference, but honestly to hear it from an anarchist just feels odd. I mean, did you think we went full focus into the workfare campaign because this was something *really bad* being done to claimants?

There is a massive issue with "unemployed nationalists" trying to make/keep the workfare movement a sectional campaign, focusing entirely on claimants struggle. This is about the most important existing position we need to be arguing against right now. It's not "dismissing" claimants to say workfare is a class issue as opposed to a claimants issue - actually, I think this is essential for joint worker/claimant actions, otherwise it's just charity.

Caiman del Barrio
Aug 5 2012 16:46
Steven. wrote:
Of course for the people who are unemployed it is much more significant in terms of their personal circumstances, however Aufheben are not talking about who suffers most on a personal level, but at whom the attack is mostly directed.

OK right I get ya but this isn't perhaps the most important point to make. I think it's rather perverse to frame things in terms of capital's intentions rather than the subjective effect on the working class' quality of life.

Like I say, I broadly agree with the thrust of the Aufheben article, but I think it's poorly syntaxed and overly motivated by a desire to appeal to workerism. What exactly is wrong with orientating a struggle towards claimants' conditions? Why must it have to appeal to workers at the expense of claimants? Why can't we see the two as parallel phenomena seeking to converge? JK's article about prison labour etc a few months back put this excellently: this one put it quite poorly IMO.

Fall Back
Aug 5 2012 16:47
Steven. wrote:
Of course for the people who are unemployed it is much more significant in terms of their personal circumstances, however Aufheben are not talking about who suffers most on a personal level, but at whom the attack is mostly directed.

Yea this is pretty much key - and to be honest, if we based our analysis/activity around who suffered most personally, we'd be communist Live 8.

Caiman del Barrio
Aug 5 2012 17:00
Fall Back wrote:
Caiman del Barrio wrote:
No obviously I just skimmed it cos that's the best way to make claims about stuff. roll eyes

I was giving you the benefit of the doubt. If you read the article and missed that, then you've fundamentally misunderstood the entire article. You picked out a single sentence lout of context from the rest of the article and even then misunderstood it. To assume you had briefly scanned it was the best case scenario, really.

Sorry but this is disrespectful and ad hominem. Essentially, you're calling me stupid.

Similarly, maybe you could read my posts, especially the bit where I say I agree with "the thrust" of the article.

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Can we have some respectful, honest debates here please?

Well, for a start "respectful, honest debates" would includes not snipping quotes out of context. Eg, the quote you pulled up above was immediately prefaced with "Workfare is sometimes considered just a claimants’ issue". ie, the quote you pulled was directly responding to a (destructive and problematic) view that is prevalent in both the anti-workfare movement and the wider population.

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Grant me at least the credit of reading it, thinking about it then replying. I mean, I know I'm breaking the 4th Libcom Commandment here by criticising Aufheben but still...

It's also indistinguishable from the de facto solfed position, and eg all of our interventions to the workfare conference, stuff on our website, our publicity etc.

No, the 'mainstream' SF position is much better phrased. I wouldn't see anything like that phrase getting into SLSF prop for example. Maybe Brighton would be OK with it, I dunno.

FTR, I don't think you should talk for the whole organisation in public either. There's clearly a far broader disparity of views on Workfare within the org than the two positions adopted by us 2.

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I understand that in theory Aufheben would probably be in favour of claimants organising alongside workers

Since Aufheben is half made up of lifestyle doleys and have been significant in pushing for this direction in the national campaign, it's hardly "in theory" - in terms of practical linking up between claimants and workers against workfare, I can't really think of anyone (apart from us wink) who has done more.

Right well I dunno what they've done or whatever cos all they ever seem to do publicly is write wordy articles which influence policing strategy ( wink ), I can only respond to their written output ultimately can't I?

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And, for the record, Workfare is a massive attack on claimants, moreso than most workers (at the moment anyway). To deny this is absurd.

I'm somewhat bemused by this tbh. Is this really the experience you've come out of the workfare campaign with? I'm genuinely shocked you're coming out with this - and I'm not just using this for rhetorical effect - I was put out enough by liberals saying the same thing at the workfare conference, but honestly to hear it from an anarchist just feels odd. I mean, did you think we went full focus into the workfare campaign because this was something *really bad* being done to claimants?

Misrepresentation of my position, more disrespect.

And yes, when the Workfare campaign started, I and most of my friends had ongoing relationships with the Jobcentre so it was - at least partially - about that. This is why you see people within the org talking about doign more longterm work with claimants off the back of the Workfare campaign.

I understand where Aufheben et al are coming from, the positions against it by Guardian journos have been on the grounds of Workfare being 'cruel' to the unemployed with no mention of the effect on the employed, but does that mean we go to the opposite? This is what I mean when I say this is AWL-esque. If you wanna unite claimants and workers against it, you don't tell claimants to STFU about going onto Workfare what to do about it, etc.

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There is a massive issue with "unemployed nationalists" trying to make/keep the workfare movement a sectional campaign, focusing entirely on claimants struggle. This is about the most important existing position we need to be arguing against right now. It's not "dismissing" claimants to say workfare is a class issue as opposed to a claimants issue - actually, I think this is essential for joint worker/claimant actions, otherwise it's just charity.

Yes I know, I understand that. I did before reading the article. roll eyes

My point is rather that Aufheben goes too far the other way. How does saying it affects workers more than claimants make it a "class issue" (unless you consider the unemployed to be déclassé, which is one possible reading of Aufheben's article here)?

Fall Back
Aug 5 2012 17:18
Caiman del Barrio wrote:
No, the 'mainstream' SF position is much better phrased. I wouldn't see anything like that phrase getting into SLSF prop for example. Maybe Brighton would be OK with it, I dunno.

FTR, I don't think you should talk for the whole organisation in public either. There's clearly a far broader disparity of views on Workfare within the org than the two positions adopted by us 2.

I think we can talk about our position based on stuff we've published and publicly argued. These have been our publicly argued politics. I'm sure plenty of people in the organisation think otherwise, but the de facto politics of the organisation are those we have publicly presented.

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Misrepresentation of my position, more disrespect.

Please show where I've misrepresented you?

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I understand where Aufheben et al are coming from, the positions against it by Guardian journos have been on the grounds of Workfare being 'cruel' to the unemployed with no mention of the effect on the employed, but does that mean we go to the opposite?

Again, how are you getting this from the article? Despite the one line you grasped at, it's almost entirely about experiences of doleys! It repeatedly refers to workfare "disgusting treatment" of the unemployed etc. Hardly ignoring how it affects claimants!

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This is what I mean when I say this is AWL-esque. If you wanna unite claimants and workers against it, you don't tell claimants to STFU about going onto Workfare what to do about it, etc.

Honestly not really sure what you're arguing here? The current status-quo within workfare movements is that it's a "claimants issue". This is both wrong and also disastrous. Are you saying we shouldn't argue against this, and present analysis that says to the contrary. For what it's worth, the main person within Brighton SF who put work into developing this analysis is on the Work Programme.

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My point is rather that Aufheben goes too far the other way. How does saying it affects workers more than claimants make it a "class issue" (unless you consider the unemployed to be déclassé, which is one possible reading of Aufheben's article here)?

Again, it doesn't say anything like that. It says that workfare is a class issue, not a "dole struggle". That those mainly under attack are those in waged work, not those in receipt of benefits. I mean, seriously, given the numbers on the dole (and indeed, the cost of workfare schemes), who do you think the government cares more about - hassling claimants or restructuring the labour market even further towards a low-waged, precarious economy?

Jim Clarke
Aug 5 2012 17:18
Caiman del Barrio wrote:
No, the 'mainstream' SF position is much better phrased. I wouldn't see anything like that phrase getting into SLSF prop for example. Maybe Brighton would be OK with it, I dunno.

The SLSF leaflet about workfare, which we have handed out to thousands of people makes that exact point, as has everything else we've collectively agreed.

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Workfare means employers can lay-off their staff and replace them with people they don’t have to pay. The point of workfare is to drive down wages and working conditions, undermining even the minimum wage which many struggle to survive on.

Workfare isn’t about saving money – in fact these schemes are hugely expensive to the government. Workfare is a massive subsidy to private companies: providing them with free labour at public expense. The government has long been subsidising companies that pay low wages by topping-up poverty pay with benefits and tax credits. Workfare means less pay for us and more profits for them.

The state and businesses are colluding to undermine all our conditions.

Caiman del Barrio
Aug 5 2012 17:31

Slow handclap for Jim Clarke here for failing to grasp the point at hand. Noone has come into this debate denying the effect Workfare has on waged workers, least of all me. It'd be really great if you both read my posts before claiming I haven't read yours.

And actually, they haven't been handed out to "thousands" (unless there are thousands of people calling round your flat)... wink

Caiman del Barrio
Aug 5 2012 17:37
Fall Back wrote:
Quote:
Misrepresentation of my position, more disrespect.

Please show where I've misrepresented you?

Because you keep returning - mantra-like - to this assertion that Workfare drives down real wages, as if I somehow doubt this. I'm not in Right to Work and I don't write for The fucking Guardian (and if I did write for them, I'd make that precise fucking point).

[qutoe]

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I understand where Aufheben et al are coming from, the positions against it by Guardian journos have been on the grounds of Workfare being 'cruel' to the unemployed with no mention of the effect on the employed, but does that mean we go to the opposite?

Again, how are you getting this from the article?

The quote I gave.

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My point is rather that Aufheben goes too far the other way. How does saying it affects workers more than claimants make it a "class issue" (unless you consider the unemployed to be déclassé, which is one possible reading of Aufheben's article here)?

Again, it doesn't say anything like that.

It explicitly says that.

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It says that workfare is a class issue, not a "dole struggle".

So why must claimants be airbrushed out in order for it be a 'class issue', if they are indeed part of the working class?

That those mainly under attack are those in waged work, not those in receipt of benefits. I mean, seriously, given the numbers on the dole (and indeed, the cost of workfare schemes), who do you think the government cares more about - hassling claimants or restructuring the labour market even further towards a low-waged, precarious economy?

What so working for 12 weeks for £65/wk doesn't constitute "an attack"? How about going on one of those awful courses? Workfare is an attempt to undercut the minimum wage, undermine legally recognised T&Cs, etc, but it's also - at base - a disincentive for people to casually resist work. Why can't it be both?

Jim Clarke
Aug 5 2012 17:44
Caiman del Barrio wrote:
Slow handclap for Jim Clarke here for failing to grasp the point at hand. Noone has come into this debate denying the effect Workfare has on waged workers, least of all me. It'd be really great if you both read my posts before claiming I haven't read yours.

And actually, they haven't been handed out to "thousands" (unless there are thousands of people calling round your flat)... ;)

You've taken issue with the line in the article saying that workfare is more an attack on workers than it is on claimants, the quote above says that the "point of workfare is to drive down wages and working conditions". That's basically exactly the same argument - expressed in slightly different ways. The way Aufheben phrased it doesn't detract from claimants experiences or say this isn't a claimants issue, just the primary purpose of workfare is an attack on the class.

We had over 5k copies printed before the 5k that are propping up my coffee table. grin

Caiman del Barrio
Aug 5 2012 17:51
Jim Clarke wrote:
Caiman del Barrio wrote:
Slow handclap for Jim Clarke here for failing to grasp the point at hand. Noone has come into this debate denying the effect Workfare has on waged workers, least of all me. It'd be really great if you both read my posts before claiming I haven't read yours.

And actually, they haven't been handed out to "thousands" (unless there are thousands of people calling round your flat)... ;)

You've taken issue with the line in the article saying that workfare is more an attack on workers than it is on claimants, the quote above says that the "point of workfare is to drive down wages and working conditions". That's basically exactly the same argument - expressed in slightly different ways. The way Aufheben phrased it doesn't detract from claimants experiences or say this isn't a claimants issue, just the primary purpose of workfare is an attack on the class.

So what's the bright idea for how to get claimants & workers strugglign together against Workfare? tell the claimants that their problems are less important/worth less/not as serious as the workers'? The SLSF leaflet doesn't say that, the Aufheben article explicitly says that in the line I picked, and implicitly says it throughout.

There is a deeper debate to be had here about the role of the unemployed in class struggles. Why does an issue only become a 'class' one when it affects waged workers, for example?

Jim Clarke
Aug 5 2012 18:36
Caiman del Barrio wrote:
So what's the bright idea for how to get claimants & workers strugglign together against Workfare? tell the claimants that their problems are less important/worth less/not as serious as the workers'? The SLSF leaflet doesn't say that, the Aufheben article explicitly says that in the line I picked, and implicitly says it throughout.

There is a deeper debate to be had here about the role of the unemployed in class struggles. Why does an issue only become a 'class' one when it affects waged workers, for example?

It doesn't explicitly say that claimants struggles are less important, worth less or not as serious as workers struggles. It explicitly says that workfare is more of an attack on waged workers than it is on unemployed workers, partly by putting the attacks on the unemployed into a historical context. You think the article is implicitly saying those things, everybody else who has read it doesn't.

The article isn't saying that attacks on claimants weren't part of the class struggle when they only affected claimants, it's saying that workfare is an attack on the entire class (so claimants and waged workers).

wildejamey
Aug 7 2012 04:37

Excellent article. However, I would make no distinction between New Labour ( or current Blairite Labour for that matter) and the ConDems. They are all essentially instruments of the ruling capitalist economic-political-judicial power complex. The only difference historically is that so-called centre-left governments are not as brazen and ruthless in pushing their agenda. But Blair, Darling, Brown, Purnell and the rest made the present gang's task immeasurably easier. It was simply the anti-welfare, anti-working class counterpart of their cosying up to the corporate bandits responsible for the current economic mess. The reluctance of Milliband et al to take a stand on the issue - indeed colluding with the basic agenda - means there's little likelihood of change from that quarter. The same goes for most of the unions, again mostly in the pockets of the establishment. Their silence - apart from opportunistic forays - has been deafening, when they are the ones who should have been challenging these attacks at every turn. As you say, the basic issue here is the use of cheap or free labour to undermine the bargaining power or job security of all the workers who still have a job. It's just a continuation of the same basic principles of capitalists screwing absolute and relative surplus value out of the labour force as Marx identified in Victorian times. Who among the '60s liberals would have imagined these sort of practices re-emerging in such blatant form in 2012? So the union bosses sitting back - or more likely failing to recognize the implications - of these scams for the workforce they supposedly represent is a basic betrayal of their whole raison d'etre. They are supposed to be the leaders of the labour movement educating the workers to how they are actually getting fleeced. Perhaps they actually are as much brainwashed by the political propaganda as the masses they are supposed to lead. Well, they have sat back allowing the relative position of workers to be diminished by the susbtitution of massive numbers of part-time jobs and the use of excessive overtime at the expense of full-time jobs with reasonable conditions for years. An army of the part-employed now reinforcing the increasing reserve army of the mass unemployed.

I am amazed at how some of the commentators on here continue to be taken in by the divide-and-rule "moral" angles which as you say can constantly be countered by the political con-artists and their media agents by rolling out individual "success" stories or the usual anecdotes of workshy, thieving claimants that play so well to the less admirable aspects of human nature.The trouble is that it's all part of the process of setting the have-slightly-mores against the have-nots, with the fear of joblessness and being consigned to the workfare chain-gang constantly in the background. Ditto the attack on employment rights which are already some of the worst in the EU. The major problem is buying into the false dichotomy between workers and jobless, rather than seeing them all as part of the same exploited class, the only difference being the relative (and perhaps temporary) security of those earning a wage as against those on benefits subject to potentially working for nothing. Even most of those working have nothing to set aside for a pension and so will eventually be on state hand-outs of one sort or another and gradually robbed by the raising of the retirement age and increased contributions.
It's interesting that the soft spot in these workfare scams turned out to be a combination of businesses fearful for their reputations and profits and the use of direct communication through internet vehicles. As in the past, the way forward lies not in moral argument that goes round in circles or trying to use instruments of the so-called "democratic" system - courts, appeals to indistinguishable politicians, a mostly rigged press and TV media system, unions that have become part of the same corrupt system - but in using the flaws of capitalism against itself. Hit their business profits, tarnish their reputations through targeted direct action. Use direct media sources to do so. Use direct media to counter the sick anti-welfare, anti-disabled scapegoating campaigns of the gutter Tory press by an equally ruthless attacking campaign on the high-profile names profiting from these scams and against the real robbers such as bankers and tax avoiders whose ill-gotten gains dwarf anything saved by benefit cuts.Educate people not to take workfare schemes at face value but to realize that they are just another a device to control the workforce (and society in general) by divide and rule and to protect the profits of capitalists by optimizing the supply of labour at the lowest rate possible to keep the whole crazy cycle of boom and bust going.

Steven.
Aug 10 2012 18:38

Right, I've bought Aufheben now (from a workmate funnily enough). I think it's a good article overall. I was quite surprised at the tone of it which seemed quite different to most Aufheben stuff (mention of "scumbags" etc).

One thing which I think was omitted but which deserved a mention is the fact that these schemes are providing free workers for private companies, paid for by the taxpayer. This element of public subsidy for private capital I think is important, as across the world the crisis is being used as an excuse for this kind of subsidy. While public services for the working class are being slashed, public subsidies for businesses (and so the rich) continue to boom.

Caiman, you are entirely getting the wrong end of the stick with this article.

Caiman del Barrio wrote:

So what's the bright idea for how to get claimants & workers strugglign together against Workfare? tell the claimants that their problems are less important/worth less/not as serious as the workers'? The SLSF leaflet doesn't say that, the Aufheben article explicitly says that in the line I picked, and implicitly says it throughout.

no it doesn't I'm afraid. Maybe try reading it again? You seem to be projecting a strawman position you want to be angry with onto the article and reading what you want to see rather than what it actually says.

One thing you may not be getting is that it is clear when Aufheben talks about the working class they're including unemployed workers as part of this. All the article is saying is that these attacks on the unemployed are not just an issue for the unemployed, essentially they are an attack on the entire working class.