In the 1880s Bismarck's social insurance programs - old age pensions, accident insurance, medical care and unemployment insurance - were the first in the world and became the model for other countries and the basis of the modern welfare state. His aim was to undermine the appeal of the Socialists as well as the networks of working class solidarity, and to recuperate and pacify social contestation.
The following is a long leaflet from 1985, produced (for a union-organised demonstration against Norman Fowler's changes in the welfare system) by some ex-members of Workers Playtime and the London Workers Group. It is still surprisingly pertinent, though obviously the names of politicians and the precise policies have changed.
PDF courtesy of leftove.rs archive.
THE WELFARE STATE ISN'T NOW, AND NEVER WAS, A "GENUINE GAIN FOR THE WORKING CLASS"
If nothing else, the Fowler proposals for reforming the Social Security system show what a pack of bastards the present government are. In response to them, the Labour party and TUC are encouraging us to campaign to defend the Welfare State. Do they take us for complete idiots?
The Fowler proposals are not, as claimed, a fundamental reform of the Welfare State. They merely aim to rationalise it to meet the changed reality of mass unemployment, and deepen the divisions within the working class. So aside from half-hearted efforts to tidy up the accumulated mess of conflicting benefits and regulations, and to end the ‘poverty trap’, they are intended to reduce provision for ‘the poor’. This is being done to increase their dependency, force them to devote their energies to surviving rather than revolting, and frighten the rest of the working class with the threat of the ‘abyss’ of poverty. The poor are to be more visibly separated from the relatively well off - those with jobs and average wages. These are supposed to form the ‘home-owning, two-car-owning, share-owning democracy’ which the Tories see as a vital bulwark against resistance to,the redistribution of wealth back to the ruling class. This much is obvious to anyone with eyes to see.
Less obvious to many who can see this much is that the Welfare State isn’t now, and never was, a “genuine gain for the working class”. Even less is it something we should be fighting to defend. The oppressive reality of the Welfare State is all too obvious to those in receipt of its ‘benefits’. The appalling misery of old age on inadequate pensions. The endless bureaucratic swamp of Housing Benefit and public housing provision. The arrogance of the medical and social work priesthoods. The inhuman nightmare of the Social Security system - and so on.
Yet many still think that their experience isn’t a reflection of the nature and function of the Welfare State, but is simply the result of ‘problems’ and deformations which would only take a few reforms to sort out. This sort of misapprehension has been played on by the Labour Party and the left throughout the history of the Welfare State. They present themselves as the Progressive Forces which alone will sort out these ‘problems’ and defend these ‘gains’. This campaign is yet another attempt to mobilise ‘our people’ into voting Labour at the next election.
Today these ‘problems’ are blamed on the Tory cuts and Tory monetarism. We’re not supposed to remember that it was the Wilson/Callaghan governments which started the cuts arid first adopted monetarist policies.
The Welfare State is just the contemporary face of the capitalist state. If it offers all kinds of services and financial support - things that we need to survive - it doesn’t do this because we need them, but because capitalism needs us to have them in order for it to survive. We shouldn’t be surprised if capitalism “snatches back” benefits or imposes new conditions for granting them as its priorities change. It is only able to ‘service’ our needs because capitalist society has developed through destroying our opportunities for doing so ourselves.
The modern British Welfare State evolved over many decades as individual capitalists were slowly brought to accept the need to control the wider social conditions within which their profits were produced. Because they need an educated, healthy workforce. Workers who are motivated through a sense of having a stake in society, and are not motivated by the anger generated through complete dispossession and destitution. On the other hand, they need to directly intervene in order to shape and dominate ever greater areas of social life and promote the spread of capitalist social relations to every part of society
The Beveridge Report was just a high point in the development of the modern capitalist state, in its evolution as a framework within which workers and their dependents were simultaneously compelled and enticed towards becoming Citizens. People who are economically ‘free’ (in other words, free to sell their time and creative activity to capitalists), but who have a material stake - however small - in the order of things. Something to vote for, something to lose. But at the same time, people who are dominated and influenced to an extent unprecedented in human history.
Labour see this stake being developed through democratic participation and extended ‘social’ ownership and control; the Tories see the stake arising from democratic participation in extended personal property~ownership or control (through credit). Both are tied to the Welfare State, however welfare is to be doled out. The reality is that 56% of the adult population receive their main income from the state. 14 million through pensions and other benefits, 71/2 million through state employment (including the administration of the Welfare State).
Today, left-wing squealing about the “attack on Beveridge” is part of a whole mythology concerning the 1945 Labour government. This is held up to us as the model of Socialism in Action, since the left want us to forget the socialism in action of the Wilson and Callaghan years. Let’s look at some of these myths.
The Attlee government agreed to the atom bomb being dropped on Hiroshima eleven days after it took office, and subsequently initiated Britain’s ‘independent’ nuclear capability. It used troops against strikers on numerous occasions (the first time a mere six days after it took office). During the War for Democracy against the. rival German imperialism, Labour members of the coalition government had been instrumental in the passing of draconian anti-strike laws, with the collaboration of the trade unions: The Attlee administration was still using them as late as 1951. It repeatedly used military force to help make countries Safe for Western Democracy (Indonesia, Palestine, Greece, Egypt etcetera), as well as to police the Empire. Involving among many other instances of Socialist Internationalism the aerial bombing of Indian villages and the massacre of strikers by police in Nigeria. At home, it maintained a wage freeze exactly like subsequent Labour governments and as part of that openly used its new ‘welfare’ provisions to subsidise and thus maintain low pay. (For example through Family Allowances, another Beveridge innovation which the Labour Party had opposed before the war). It even introduced the first Health Service charges after promising not to….
The Fowler proposals are presented as an attack on Beveridge - what rubbish! Beveridge’s proposed system was overturned by events years ago, and the principles behind FowIer’s review are all to be found in the Beveridge report. The basis of the Beveridge plan was National Insurance against sickness and unemployment based on workers’ and employers’ contributions. Social Security, then called National Assistance, was seen as a safety net for those who had no contribution record in the scheme’s early years. The idea was that it would largely ‘wither away’. In reality today, Supplementary Benefit is claimed by more than twice as many people as those claiming Sickness and Unemployment Benefit put together.
Women were to be forced back into the family, and those who were married were not covered by the National Insurance scheme except as dependents. The costs of child care were obviously not met by the insurance scheme, so Beveridge proposed Family Allowances for mothers of two or more children as a universal benefit without contributions or means testing.
“Taken as a whole, the Plan for Social Security puts a premium on marriage….In the next thirty years housewives and mothers have vital work to do in ensuring the adequate continuance of the British race and of British ideals in the world.”
The Beverldge Report (“Social Insurance ard Allied Services”) para. 117.
The basis of the New Order was to be ‘full employment in a free society’ - full employment for male breadwinners, that is, who were expected to be able to bring home a family wage. In this way, Beveridge laid the basis for reinforcing the burden of dependency, unpaid labour and unequal access to benefits on women. This burden has never been significantly lifted by subsequent governments. For the Labour Party to criticise Fowler for increasing it is no more than the pot calling the kettle black.
Because Beveridge was concerned not to undermine the incentive to work, benefits were set at subsistence levels and were either means tested or conditional on the recipients seeking work. Low benefits were also intended to encourage individuals to take out private insurance (Beveridge Report para 375) - another way in which Fowler is proposing to return to the authentic spirit of Beveridge.
In practice, the Beveridge plan was not fully implemented, and the changing needs of capitalism have long since led to fundamental modifications to his structure. The emergence of Supplementary Benefit as the principal form of state welfare, together with the persistence of low pay and the return of mass unemployment deepened the ‘unemployment trap’ (people being better off on benefit and losing any incentive to work). Attempts were made to counter this through a range of new means-tested benefits, mostly introduced by Conservative governments. They include Education Benefits, Housing Benefits and Family Income Supplement, and were to be available to the low-paid as well as the unemployed. However this solution to one problem merely exacerbated another - the ‘poverty trap’, where increases in pay for the low paid simply meant a loss of benefit, and didn’t increase income.
The Labour Party response to this problem was the introduction of various earnings-. related supplements to some National Insurance bepefits, paid for by increased contributions. This was largely to maintain Labour support amongst the male breadwinning caste, as growing redundancies.accompanied industrial restructuring in the sixties. It was a fundamental departure from Beveridge, which implied equal state insurance for all. The Tories have abolished Earnings-Related NI Supplement, and now are talking about abolishing State Earnings-Related Pensions. They are quite happy to maintain the principle of unequal treatment through Selective Targetting. (This is the ‘shifting of resources to where they are most needed’: it implies the abandonment of the notion of a welfare ‘safety net’ or a minimum standard of living, in favour of the notion of cost-effective’ welfare, and also increases the scope for further cuts).
On this march we are being urged that ‘our campaign of opposition must be even more determined” than this “savage and determined assault on the Welfare State.” In reality we are being invited to use the issue to campaign for a Labour government. How savage and determined an opposition to these reforms would this be? The Labour Party has yet to publish its policy on Social Security, but according to Michael Meacher, the Shadow Health and Social Services Secretary, three resolutions passed at the Labour Party Conference form the basis of a full-scale programme to rebuild the Welfare State. They included a proposal to raise pensions to 50% of average earnings for married couples through the reintroduction of SERPS, a substantial increase in Child Benefit, the end of means testing for Supplementary Benefit and a new Housing Aid Benefit. These are no more than a redistribution of the Welfare Cake.
This must be seen in the context of Kinnock’s recent announcement that an incoming Labour government could offer no miracle cures or instant repairs to the damage done by government cuts in the last six years. “We would not offer you such a mirage”. In the same way, the pledges to reduce unemployment to a million that Labour campaigned on at the last election have been publicly scrapped. The party clearly hopes that this display qf the New Realism will make it credible. By the same token, even if the Welfare State were worth fighting for, voting Labour would still be pretty pointless.
Many of course will be voting Labour in the hope that a more radical set of proposals can be won at conference and forced on the leadership. This is sheer fantasy. Labour will win with Kinnock or not at all, and he has already shown what he intends to do with resolutions which he considers electoral liabilities. The Social Security system is mined with plenty of potential electoral booby-traps, as the Tories are now discovering with their proposal to end SERPS. Meacher caused a similar row with an unauthorised suggestion about removing married mens’ tax allowances. We can rule out fundamental reform unless a dramatic change in British capitalism compels it. And we can be sure that such reforms will not be to benefit us.
This campaign is intended to link up with Labour Party campaigns on the National Health Service, Community Care, Housing and the Family which will run until the next election. For Labour, welfare is to be the main election issue. So clearly this campaign isn’t seriously intended to resist the present proposals. The main horse-trading about Fowler’s plan is taking place now. By the time the Bill is produced, supposedly November, it will be all over bar any minor concessions and revisions as it goes through parliament. Not even the most naive can still believe that this government will be prevented from implementing its plans by any consideration except electoral expediency. Complaints from middle-class Tory voters about pension reform and Housing Benefit cuts, and the opposition of the pension companies to universal private insurance are likely to count for something. The implications for the poor count for nothing, though welfare lobby crocodile tears might extract a few ‘concessions’. Perhaps increased resources for the new Social Fund or a slightly different balance of winners and losers in the distribution of benefits. But let’s not all touch forelocks at once.
Is this campaign irrelevant to resistance to these changes ? On the contrary, it’s quite instrumental. Instrumental, that is, in the process of disarming any spontaneous outbreak of doing the necessary. It achieves this by generating fears rather than understanding, fears for which the only solutions on offer are to vote Labour, and defend the welfare lobby who can then continue to explain our new ‘rights’ to us. By monopolising the public space for debate, campaigns like this make effective solidarity harder.
What does genuine resistance spring from ? It’s necessary to recognise that resistance to the Welfare State has been there from the start. In the past this has sometimes taken political forms (for example, before the First World War there were campaigns against the Unemployment Insurance Act). Today the political arena is dominated by the left, which only wishes to modify the form, not the content, of capitalist welfarism. But at the deepest level this resistance stems from peoples’ real needs and circumstances, and takes practical forms. Mass unemployment and growing poverty mean that more people than ever have no option but to lie, fiddle, steal and moonlight their way to sufficient income - alongside those who have never had inhibitions about doing this.
Fowler’s proposals are calculated to make this more difficult, and in the long term, to shift Social Security staff from administering to policing claims. In these circumstances people need information about the proposed changes to allow them to decide their future strategy for doing whatever they have to in order to survive. They are confronted today by bafflingly complex arguments within the welfare lobby and inaccurate scare-stories from the Labour bandwagon. In either case, this disinformation goes hand-in-hand with open disapproval of ‘illegality’ and the idea that solidarity means everyone crawling hand-in-hand up Capital’s backside. As the real content of Fowler’s proposals are revealed later this year, it will be necessary to circulate useable information about them as widely as possible.
Resistance at the everyday level is constant within capitalist society and the localised forms it takes has obvious parallels with the current state of workplace class struggle. The aftermath of the miners’ strike has seen the number of strikes reduced. Not, as the left would have it, because people have been frightened into submission, but because they are not prepared to strike when they cannot see it achieving results. By contrast, other forms of workplace resistance have increased. Absenteeism, for example, has jumped to record levels. The highest rates are among manual workers in general services and manufacturing, and regionally in the North of England - precisely those areas where New Realism was supposed to have bitten those still in work the deepest.
Trade union sponsorship of this campaign is understandable in this context. The current reluctance to strike is also due to a realistic perception by workers of the union’s function in maintaining capitalist order, and of the inadequacy of union.organised ‘unity’. This state of affairs will go on until workers begin to develop a unity of their own.
If everyday resistance is constant, it still does no more than sustain our survival. In the long run, the only way of eliminating the need.for survival and resistance would be to overthrow capitalist society and replace it with a society where needs and their satisfaction weren’t separated by systems of private property and exchange. That’s not on the horizon today. It would require widespread and large-scale collective struggles offering a serious challenge to all of the divisions and alienation of capitalist society. In the meantime everyday struggle is the ground on which discontent with this society, and new forms of collectivity based on that discontent, can develop.
But to pretend that this will be the inevitable result of increased misery would be stupid. Just as pronounced, is the tendency towards an increased atomisation and isolation of working class people. What we can be confident about is that increased poverty and any rationalisation of the system of policing it as implied in Fowler’s scheme, will only increase the need for people to act more collectively in order to survive. On the other hand, increased alienation, far from bolstering capitalism’s grip, will undermine the basic social co-operation necessary for capitalist accumulation.
The beginnings of collective struggle can be seen in the organised harrassment of Social Security investigation teams, in fighting hospital closures, and most visibly, if also most briefly - in riots and near-riots.
We believe that the only solution to poverty, oppression, exploitation and social division lies in destroying any form of society which perpetuates and institutionalises them. We believe in the need to develop more effective forms of collective and individual resistance and attack. That can’t be done by fighting to defend the Welfare State. It’s more likely to occur in the course of resisting and opposing it.
What the Welfare State needs is a kick in the Tentacles.
Published by the Red Butchers Shop Stewards Committee
c/o 84b Whitechapel High St, London E1