Job Seekers Allowance - only doing your job?

Letter received, addressing JSA workers and challenging their reasons for implementing the JSA. From Subversion #22 (1997)

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 4, 2010

Dear Subversion

In our opinion the articles in issues 19 and 20 on the Job Seekers Allowance were valuable contributions to an understanding of this issue. If we could contribute a few words on the dole workers who are implementing the JSA.

In some ways this appears to refer to the freedom versus determinism debate in philosophy: how much is our behaviour authentically free and how much is it determined by social circumstances?

Some dole workers, and their supporters, appear to be arguing that they have no freedom at all over what do, "I'm only doing what I'm told."

In a situation where trade union reformism is starkly revealed as an ideology and practice where it is seen as perfectly acceptable for one group of workers to progress by oppressing another group, it is worth looking at their arguments systematically. For ease of presentation we have done this in a question and answer format.

Why pick on me? It's not my fault if the Government have brought in the Job Seekers Allowance. I'm only doing what I'm told.

This is the sort of argument that junior civil servants in the Employment and Benefit Agencies use to try to justify their part in enforcing this oppressive measure. The officials behind the counters in local dole offices claim that this is unfair for them to be targeted by their angry clients. They say that they are not personally responsible for the polices which attack the poor. Thus they cannot be held to blame. But this defence does not hold water.

If someone knowingly and willingly does bad things, even if that person was not the originator of the policy, then this is wrong. The fact that those immediately implementing the JSA did not dream it up makes no difference. Unemployed people are being oppressed by 'the system' but implementing the system are people who have names and addresses.

If I don't do it someone else will.

Maybe, but another person acting wrongly is no justification for doing the same thing yourself. Two wrongs don't make a right.

I'm not getting paid much to do it; some dole office workers receive a benefit top-up themselves.

If doing something is bad then it does not matter how much you get paid for doing it. It's still bad if you do it for a lot of money or nothing at all.

I try to give a bit of advice to the people I have to deal with.

This is just self deception. Trying to justify implementing the JSA by saying that you water it down a bit won't wash. You are still enforcing a fundamentally unjust and bad policy. Smiling at the victim just adds insult to injury.

I'm a good trade unionist who's gone on strike to demand my bosses give me adequate protection from angry clients.

All you are worried about is yourself. There is nothing virtuous about taking industrial action in support of a bad cause. Trade union action taken to try to make it easier to implement anti-working class measures is no good. (Benefit workers need screens when the dole offices already have 'hot links' to the police, are covered in closed circuit TV cameras and patrolled by thuggish security guards? It might appear to some that it is the claimants who are being intimidated.)

If I refuse to enforce the JSA I'll lose my job.

This is possible but there are some things more important than having a job: like integrity. Anyway you could try to get a transfer into another part of the Civil Service or move out into another job. Sure, this is not easy with mass unemployment but if you go along with the JSA where will it lead?
Rounding up unemployed people and putting them into work camps? (The already piloted Project Work is a straight slave labour scheme). Deporting those originating from abroad? Where will this creeping fascism end? At the Nuremburg trials the usual defence of those who participated in the Nazi extermination programme was: "I was only doing my job." As a matter of history the Nuremburg court dismissed the, 'I was only obeying orders' defence as illegitimate.

Also, this type of argument is an insult to many people on the dole who have refused to take scab jobs (and been attacked by benefit workers for not doing so). The unemployed workers who have refused to take the jobs of the Liverpool dockers, in an area where unemployment can last a lifetime, should be commended for obeying basic working class principles of solidarity at no little cost to themselves. In an environment where trade unionists routinely cross picket lines such struggles indicate important pockets of resistance to capitalist to capitalist oppression.

But it is not just actual scab jobs. Why should unemployed people be thought of as some kind of sub-humans (Untermenschen) for whom any kind of McJob or dubious work will do? If someone does not want to attack poor and vulnerable people by becoming a debt collector then they should be supported. If someone does not want to attack unemployed people by becoming a Restart 'tutor', a job which entails becoming a part of the propaganda offensive which attempts to blame the unemployed themselves for unemployment rather than the irrational capitalist economic system, then they should be supported. If someone simply does not want to work for trash wages at a pizza outlet then they should be commended not condemned. Lower echelon dole and SS workers have always occupied a contradictory class location. Whilst being subject to oppression and relative low pay themselves they have, nevertheless, exercised an important supervisory role over unemployed working class people. With the implementation of the JSA the role of 'frontline' staff at the dole office has been changed for them from one of administration to much more of a policing role. For example, the Job Seekers Directive. It is ridiculous to imagine that claimants can have unity with dole office staff who can collect a bounty for 'shopping' them. Performance related pay means that the dole workers will have a financial incentive to disallow claims.

Serious anti-JSA groupings need to confront the fact that workers operate in conflict, as well as unity, in order that they can genuinely represent the interests of the unemployed in any intra-class conflictual situation. If people want to try to make themselves all right by abusing others, then they should not be too surprised if those abused sometimes bite back.

Two comrades from Nottingham.