Against Pious Moral Liberalism in the Class Struggle

A response to the article 'Only Doing Your Job?' on campaigns against the Job Seekers Allowance, which appeared in issue 22 of Subversion.

The debate (which is picked up in subsequent articles in this issue) is especially concerned with the role of workers in benefits offices.

Submitted by Fozzie on August 16, 2021

A Reply to Two Comrades from Nottingham

During the great miners strike of 1984-85 many so-called anarchists, particularly those inclined towards animal liberation or 'lifestyle politics', refused to throw their weight behind the striking miners. After all, weren't all the miners sexist, didn't they all eat meat? etc. Such arguments resurfaced during the print workers strike at Wapping when, rather than seize an opportunity with the potential to turn the tide of class struggle back in our favour, such ‘anarchists’ chose to stand aloof from a strike by supposedly selfish and privileged workers who merely wanted to defend their own position doing dirty propaganda work for the bosses by printing a reactionary newspaper that attacked women, gays and lesbians etc. Since then such sanctimonious moralism has gone from strength to strength as we have experienced defeat after defeat in the class war. Of course, pious moral liberalism has always played an important part in British anarchism, but it has become ever more prevalent in recent years, even invading the pages of otherwise avowedly communist organs such as Subversion.

In its most virulent and arrogant form this pious liberal moralism has taken the form of primitivism. Primitivists like to present themselves as the ultimate radicals. Indeed, what can be more radical than to reject civilisation as such!? But for all their pious denunciations of civilisation and vision of new hunter gathering societies they have, short of mass genocide, no means for transforming the world. Their radicalism turns out to be merely a pose.

The true nature of primitivism was perhaps most clearly exposed by a leaflet circulated by the Primitivist Network entitled 'JSA: So What!?'. With the JSA, and the subsequent Workfare schemes such as Project Work and the proposed New Deal, it would seem clear that the state is in effect targeting the very material basis for many within the anarchist milieu. The class struggle is being brought home. But what was the response of Primitivists? To ignore the whole issue! For them we should not be dependent on the state, and anyway the unemployed need a good boot up the arse! If these arguments remind one of a right wing Tory, rest assured that the campaigns they suggest we should engage with instead of opposing the JSA and Project Work - e.g. against genetically modified food, the Asylum Act etc. - return them to the terrain of concerned liberals everywhere1 .

In the previous issues of Subversion you have sought to respond to Primitivism, albeit on its own terms, by arguing for a Green Communism. However, in the last issue you carried another piece of pious moral liberalism which for some reason you did not see fit to answer. This piece was the article 'Only Doing Your Job?' which we would like to take issue with here.

We gather that comrades in Nottingham have been actively involved in the fight against the JSA, Project Work etc., and have in the past made efforts to connect with dole workers which have either been ignored or even met with active resistance from local CPSA officials. Overcoming the divisions between different sections of the proletariat is of course a key problem in the class struggle. However we are forced to respond to the way our two Nottingham comrades have posed the issue in their article. Here we see that their apparent commitment to class analysis is completely betrayed by a bourgeois individualistic approach to the problem. It is an approach that inevitably leads them to a pious liberal moralism that is no better than that we find with the Primitivists. This approach is made clear with their opening remarks where they suggest that the question of solidarity with struggling dole workers

"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"

(Only Doing Your Job?, Subversion 22)2

Of course, it could be argued that the question of free will versus determinism has always been a philosophical problem. But it is a question that is central to bourgeois philosophy. Under capitalism freedom of choice becomes a necessity. Everyone must be free to buy just as everyone must be free to sell. Indeed with ever increasing production of commodities we have an ever expanding choice of what to buy (so long as we have the money of course). Not only this, with the rise of democracy, which goes hand in hand with the rise of capitalism, we are even free to choose our own rulers!

Yet at the same time the development of capitalism breaks society up into isolated individuals that have no control over the social world which they serve to create. Capitalists have to ruthlessly pursue greater profits or else they will soon cease to be capitalists, workers have to work harder and harder or else they will find themselves on the dole. At the same time whole industries and communities can be devastated through a mere change in the price of a commodity. In this light the action of human beings are determined by capital as an alien social force.

It is this contradiction that provides the material basis for the dilemma of bourgeois philosophy between free will and determinism. Of course, for our liberal bourgeois philosopher, who is both unwilling and unable to transform society from the comfort of his study, what is important is the individual's freedom of choice. While he may well recognise the shortcomings of capitalism he puts this down to people making the wrong moral choices. For the liberal bourgeois philosophers of the enlightenment it was simply a question of reason. If everyone acted in accordance with reason, if everyone only did to others what they wanted done to them, then everything would be OK. Indeed, since every 'man' was a rational being by definition then there were good hopes that this could be achieved.

Over the 200 years or so since the enlightenment, however, capitalism has in many respects become worse. The idea that if only we each made the right moral choice in our own enlightened self-interest then all would be well has worn a little thin. Many of the more militant modern day liberals have given up on the mass of humanity making the right moral choices. Indeed, in the case of some primitivists they have given up on the notion of reason altogether, seeing it as part of the problem. The only course for such modern day liberals is to keep their own consciences clear by making their own moral choices and denounce every one else for not following suit. All they can do is hope for some apocalypse to come and redeem the world.

The approach which dominates the article by the two Nottingham comrades is essentially no different from that of such modern day militant liberals. Of course they recognise that it is in the ultimate interests of the working class to overthrow capitalism and introduce communism. Yet for them it is simply a question of each individual proletarian choosing to pursue their class interests regardless of what situation they find themselves in. From this they can conclude that the working class is potential good while the capitalists are bad.

The problem then arises as to why the mass of working class individuals have not chosen to overthrow capitalism. It is clear to our friends from Nottingham that some workers have clearly made the wrong choice. Those choosing to be police officers, social workers, school teachers, journalists, dole workers etc. All are clearly working against the interests of the working class. But it is not just these workers. On closer inspection we can find, rather surprisingly, that nearly all workers are in some way working for capital and thus ultimately against the general interests of the working class! They have all made the wrong choice! Postal workers deliver bills and disconnection threats to working class households. Car workers produce cars which will be driven through working class districts killing working class children etc. The logical conclusion would seem to be the only proletarians who can be genuinely and unequivocally opposing capital are those that refuse work altogether!!!3 We don’t know if our two Nottingham comrades feel they are in such an ‘uncompromised’ position. But the idea that all proletarians should strive for such purity can only lead to such isolation that all that can be realistically hoped for is some kind of revolutionary apocalypse!!!

Generalising from their own negative experience of dole workers, and local CPSA hacks in particular, our Nottingham comrades have been led to disparage all the efforts by dole workers to resist the JSA. Against this one should recognise that, for all the bluster our Nottingham friends have provoked, it is action by dole workers which has had the most effect in disrupting the implementation of the JSA and mitigating its effects. With just the one day strike two years ago the dole workers managed to cause more disruption to the implementation of the JSA than the entire Groundswell movement has been able to do in three years. Of course, our two Nottingham comrades argue that this strike, and those taken by the DSS workers later in the year, were not directly against the JSA but were for taken for their own interests4 . But since when have we expected any workers to strike for purely altruistic reasons!

Our Nottingham friends complain that dole workers don't stick their necks out when claimants are being threatened with dole cuts if they don't look hard enough for work. But it must be remembered that if a dole worker is sacked they too face losing their benefits for six months, and furthermore if they leak information, however trivial, they can be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act! It is easy being political on the dole. You don't normally get your money cut or get disciplined for handing out leaflets or speaking at meetings; dole workers can.

Their own efforts to make links with local dole workers having failed, our friends from Nottingham sought to parade their radicalism by advocating a national three strikes policy. We can appreciate why groups such as Edinburgh have adopted a such a policy, and why our Nottingham comrades found it attractive. Facing a hostile local trade union movement and a right wing branch of the CPSA, Edinburgh claimants were able to mount a relatively effective three strikes policy because they had built up strong links with local claimants through their unemployed centre5 . Of course if there had been a nationwide mass movement of claimants, or if three strikes had the potential of mobilising such a movement, then a national three strikes policy might have made sense. But the fact is there isn't a mass movement of claimants. We can barely mobilise 100 people for a national demo out of two and half million claimants! Even so-called political claimants have refused to become involved in the fight against the JSA preferring to bury their heads in the sand. In such a situation a national three strikes policy would have been a disaster, alienating us from any number of potential allies. Perhaps fortunately most groups in Groundswell have proved too weak to implement any such policy even if they had wanted to!

For us class analysis is not about making moral judgements on the individual choices of groups of workers regardless of the circumstances. It is a question of assessing the possibility of transforming such circumstances and choices through collective action and solidarity. Of course this does not mean there is no place for an individual proletarian making a principled stand, particularly if this leads to an exemplary act which encourages collective action. But, unlike the liberal philosopher, we can not be content with individual choice, we need collective action to transform the world since the individual choices we all have are limited by the world we live in.

This does not mean we simply proclaim some form of ideal unity as much of the left does. Unity between individual proletarians and different sections of the proletariat has to be built through the recognition of immediate differences of interests and the attempt to reconcile them within the common struggle. Of course there are some workers whose very job requires them to internalise the interests of capital as much as any capitalist. The obvious example is the police. In all but the most exceptional circumstances we can not expect the police to come over to our side, and if they did they would soon have to cease to be police. For other workers, such as dole workers, the situation is far more complex.

Our friends from Nottingham rightly point out that the JSA involves a change in the role of front-line staff ‘from one of administration to more of a policing role’. However they wrongly accept this as a fait accompli when it is still being contested. Moreover, such a characterisation of dole workers as police who force the unemployed to find work fails to recognise that, whether we like it or not, the majority of claimants want work if for no other reason than because they need the money. Part of the job for dole workers is to help people find work as well as to administer the payment of benefits6 . Of course many dole workers distinguish between good claimants who are looking for work and bad ones that are not. Some may even hate all claimants. But in our experience many recognise that there are not enough jobs to go around even if every one wanted one, and that most of those that are advertised pay shit wages that no one should be expected to work for.

Yet the balance of these attitudes depends on the balance of class forces within the office. If management is strong then each individual dole worker will only be able to either stick their neck out and get the sack or else keep their head down and adopt a more hostile attitude to claimants. If the workers are collectively strong however then they can resist the demands and targets set by management. This has clearly been proven in Brighton. For example, in Brighton, where the dole workers are organised and strong, there has been far fewer people sanctioned than in surrounding offices where the dole workers are less organised and weaker.

What is more, a part of this strength is a direct result of the solidarity we have built with the dole workers. We have supported their strikes because it has been in our interest, as well as that of the class as a whole, for the strikes to have maximum impact. We have boosted their picket lines and then leafleted other claimants afterwards explaining the reasons for the strike and countering management’s attempts to encourage dole workers and claimants to see each other as the problem, thereby deflecting attention from our mutual class enemies. And we inform them of our actions and demonstrations and so forth so that they can come and support us, establishing real solidarity.7

In a period where we have seen defeat after defeat in the class war we can understand the attractions of a pious moral liberalism in all its various guises. Yet such an approach only serves to perpetuate our present predicament and as such must be exposed and denounced8 . With the declining effectiveness of labourism there is now, for the first time in many decades, an opportunity to break down many of the sectional divisions within the working class. But such an opportunity will be lost if we follow the example of our friends from Nottingham!

Yours for proletarian solidarity (not sanctimonious piety),


c/o PO Box 2536, Rottingdean, East Sussex BN2 6LX

  • 1The irony is that the whole basis of the Asylum Act’s attack on refugees is the withdrawal of benefits - a basis from which we could make links of proletarian solidarity from our own situation by grasping the class significance of benefits rather than dismissing their defence as worthless reformism. Of course this criticism of reformism has a kernel of truth - the argument that the welfare state does not embody the final victory of the working class was essential whilst it served its primary purpose of containing working class revolt. But with the boot now on the other foot, i.e. with capital on the offensive, to refuse to engage with the struggles over benefits because they fall short of some ideal is like arguing we shouldn’t stop capital from taking the bread from our mouths because what we really want is the whole bakery. The welfare state has become a hindrance to capital in the class war, which is why capital wants to restructure it. Even though it is a defective weapon in our hands we cannot allow ourselves to be disarmed when the only other thing apparent in our in our armoury at present is a white flag.
  • 2Subversion readers who missed this article may cringe to read this quote, or may even think we have been unfair to our Nottingham comrades by picking out this piece of self-evidently bourgeois logic from an article expressing an otherwise sound grasp of dialectical thinking. On the contrary we could have chosen to highlight the devastatingly penetrative reasoning displayed by conclusions such as "Two wrongs don’t make a right" or "If something is bad then it does not matter how much you get paid...It’s still bad..." (Only Doing Your Job?, Subversion 22) but that would have been, ....erm, ....unjust? Unreasonable? Not quite cricket?
  • 3But of course it could be argued that the unemployed function as an industrial reserve army for capital, the growth of which has coincided with a period of heavy defeats for the working class.
  • 4As if the same argument could not be levelled at their ‘Three Strikes’ tactic!
  • 5The Three Strikes policy was originally put forward by Edinburgh claimants in response to the 'fraud buster' campaign. It was a tactic designed to discourage certain individuals within the Employment Service from the over-zealous implementation of the existing benefit rules. Notwithstanding the particular circumstances Edinburgh claimants found themselves faced with, it was always a grossly inadequate response to the wholesale change in the benefit rules introduced through the JSA. But at least in Edinburgh there was a significant enough claimants organisation for such a tactic to amount to more than empty radical posturing.
  • 6The particular experience of the claimant actively avoiding work should not be taken as the sole basis for assessing the class significance of the JSA. Any claimants groups who have successfully managed to completely close down a dole office for any significant period of time will have encountered the problem of unappreciative claimants wanting to gain access to the office to sign on, to sort out about missing girocheques, or to get a job. Unfortunately the lack of this sort of action in many parts of the country has allowed illusions about claimants to be retained and with them misconceptions about the functions of dole workers. Perhaps if those groups incapable of shutting down their local Job Centre(s) had spent a few hours outside them when striking dole workers did just that they might have realised that building opposition to the JSA would necessarily require broadening the issue beyond that of ‘they want me to work and I don’t want to’.
  • 7Of course we recognise that such a relationship may not always be as easy to establish and maintain as we have found. There is always the potential problem when being involved in an umbrella ‘Brighton Against The JSA’- or ‘London Against The JSA’- type group of having to deal with leftist ideologues. Indeed, Subversion 22 also contained an ‘Open Letter of Resignation from the Secretary of Wales Against the JSA’ which vividly describes a situation in which the letter writer was forced to resign from the group because it was dominated by leftists seeking to subordinate direct action by claimants to the strategy of the CPSA. Lest anyone be under the impression that such a withdrawal has released an explosion of previously suppressed autonomous struggle by Welsh claimants the letter also makes it pretty clear that such a problem only became insurmountable in the first place because of the lack of any significant movement amongst claimants. It’s hardly surprising that leftist activists will retain workerist illusions in the absence of any visible alternative force of organised opposition to JSA (nor that such workerism will be focused on dole workers when they are the only workers actively contesting JSA). Subsequent to leaving WAJSA the writer of this letter, and the seven or eight who quit with him, have been too unenthusiastic to establish any claimant - oriented alternative.
  • 8Given Subversion’s professed opposition, worthy even of a place in their hallowed ‘Aims and Principles’, to all ideologies which seek to divide the working class, one might reasonably have expected a scathing critique of the article by the two comrades from Nottingham. No doubt had a letter been submitted by a striking dole worker arguing that the pursuit of solidarity with the unemployed was pointless Subversion would have seen fit to condemn such divisiveness. Or are Subversion intending to redefine their aims and principles to accept divisive ideologies when they are espoused by those who feel they are oppressed by another section of the proletariat? Can we expect Subversion to provide sympathetic space for black nationalism, Irish republicanism or separatist feminism now that this precedent has been set?