Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne restarted an old ‘debate’ when he said that all those dependent on the welfare state for their existence were ‘scroungers’. The Labour party along with some of Osborne’s LibDem coalition partners, were astonished at the apparently provocative outburst, which relegated the greater part of the working population to the same status as the unemployed. For Osborne, the unemployed are shirkers by definition of course, and most of his critics have difficulty distinguishing their position from his. It has become fashionable to be tough on the unemployed, and the Labour party is making sure that it fits in with the fashion. This means that in contemporary public discourse everyone has to look as though they believe that unemployment is always a matter of choice.
Thus the Labour party has launched its latest idea of giving some of the longer-term unemployed 6 months of guaranteed work experience. This is not a fixed idea – they are just talking about it. And it only actually seems to apply to a little over 100,000 of the unemployed. But the basic idea is to show how hard they are being on the unemployed, by insisting that anyone offered the opportunity will have to take the job. All media presentation concerning this initiative made it very clear that the purpose was to present the Labour party as just as unyielding as the Tories in attacking the unemployed.
But the main thrust of Labour’s response to Osborne has been to say that the majority of recipients of benefit are not unemployed and not feckless shirkers. It might seem very reasonable and persuasive to argue that those who are working for a living are not shirking and so should not be denounced as scroungers. But we should note that this argument contains, albeit very quietly, the implication that there is indeed a fundamental difference between unemployed and employed workers, and carefully does not address the question of whether unemployment is voluntary. Otherwise they would have to address the issue of how unemployment actually does arise – which is a very awkward question, since it puts into question the very viability of capitalism.
We can note, in passing, that in the 1930s, when the crisis was much less developed than it is now, but when unemployment was at a much higher rate in terms of the working population, the bourgeoisie were braver than they are now. They actually did have a real, public discussion on this very question. Keynes took the view that massive, long term unemployment could not be put down to workers refusing to accept lower wages, pointing out that workers could not actually negotiate their wages individually with a prospective employer as was assumed in the economic models of the time. It was this insight that was the foundation of the Keynsian revolution in economics. In his general theory Keynes tried to show that a capitalist crisis such as the Great Depression of the 1930s was actually possible. This was ‘revolutionary’ from the bourgeoisie’s point of view, because the economic theory of the day said that such a crisis was impossible. Keynes thought the conventional view unsatisfactory given the empirical reality of the Great Depression.
The reason that the bourgeoisie have to avoid the question today, as far as possible, as to whether unemployment is voluntary or not, is that they no longer have a perspective of doing anything about the gradually unfolding drama of mass unemployment (as to whether the unfolding is indeed ‘gradual’, it rather depends on which country one is living in – Greek, Spanish or Irish workers, for example, might not see matters that way). Keynes proposed a series of remedies to try and avoid a repetition of the nightmare of the 1930s. For several decades it looked as if unemployment had been dealt with in the major countries. It was certainly reduced to lower levels after the Second World War, whether due to Keynsian policies of ‘full employment’ or to other factors.
The re-emergence of the open crisis in the late 60s and early 70s saw the re-emergence of long-term mass unemployment and an explicit abandonment by the bourgeoisie of the perspective of full employment. Once it arrived at that point it paid the bourgeoisie, obviously, to be as evasive about the issue as possible. Since they cannot avoid referring to the problem of unemployment altogether, the only remaining option is to blame the phenomenon on its victims. Hence the pervasive implication in the pronouncements of the bourgeoisie, without being too explicit, that unemployment is indeed voluntary.
This takes us back to the situation before Keynes, except that there is no question now that the bourgeoisie knows that it is trapped by the crisis and it just has to make the best of it as far as ‘explaining’ what is going on. The British bourgeoisie can see that the early promises of the current government about a ‘recovery’, following stern measures to get the state’s deficit under control, have been swept away by the reality of the crisis, so that entire line of argument is dead in the water. The Labour party might like to say ‘we told you so’, but they dare not do this seriously because they may actually have to take over the responsibility of managing the crisis again quite soon. There is no point building up expectations that they could do better in terms of running the economy. There is so little room for manoeuvre, whoever is in charge. The bourgeoisie is already muttering about the possibility of a ‘triple dip recession’.
Having said all this about the bourgeoisie’s evasions, there is one true point in what Osborne said that we should note. All workers are indeed in the same boat. If the unemployed are scroungers then so are the working population. Destitution, in other words, is completely general. It affects all workers to more or less an extent, and it affects a great many employed workers profoundly as well as the unemployed. Many employed workers – especially in London where the price of accommodation is exceptionally high and getting higher – are completely dependent on state hand-outs to live at all. The rent for a modest flat for a family in London, even in the less expensive parts, is as much as two thirds or even the whole of the wages of many workers.
Even Labour leader Ed Miliband, despite his efforts to divide the working class into the deserving and undeserving poor, is right to point out that the majority of benefits go to those in work. We should follow Marx and always note when the bourgeoisie speaks the truth – they cannot always avoid it. The reason that workers are reduced to living on benefits is because their wages are below the level required to maintain the reproduction of labour power. In other words wages are not enough to live on. It is really as simple as that, and this is not an exaggeration. The London Evening Standard was shocked to discover that there are children in London who are actually starving. The dozens of soup kitchens set up across London don’t only feed those sleeping rough or in hostels for the homeless.
Marx, let us note, was well aware of these issues and how they affected the working class. In Capital Marx deals with employers who rely on the workers subsisting on ‘relief’ as it was then called, provided by the local councils, to be able to afford the required amount of bread for their families that was regarded as the subsistence level. Similarly Trotsky in the 1930s denounced the situation where workers in the US who were actually employed nonetheless had to live on charitable hand-outs because their wages were insufficient to maintain life. Neither Marx nor Trotsky deal with such employers kindly. But both these marxists were realistic – they knew that the first response of the bourgeoisie to a crisis is to try and reduce the wages of the workers below the level required to reproduce labour power – at least below the currently accepted level.
It is a pity that Marx did not live to pronounce on a state controlled system which, in a period of almost permanent crisis, has more and more been given the task of maintaining wages permanently below the basic requirement to maintain life for a great part of the working class. This is the system we now refer to as the ‘welfare state’. The product of the period of expansion after the Second World War, the welfare state was initially a vehicle for some significant improvements in working class living standards. But it was established at a considerable price: not only the horrors of the war itself, but a considerable increase in social control, since the mechanisms of welfare aim to reduce the working class to a mass of individuals whose well-being is confided to the paternalism of the state.
It is reasonable to think that Marx’s polemics against such a system, whereby the bourgeoisie foist their welfare and dependency culture on the working class, would be something to read – and no doubt he would be particularly scathing about those ‘radicals’ and leftists who never tire of telling us that the welfare state is a gain won by the workers in struggle and even a ‘socialist’ sector of the economy. The bourgeoisie’s supposed ‘denunciations’ of the welfare state – of their own monstrous system that reduces the workers to the status of permanent beggars – would pale beside the denunciations of the workers’ movement if the workers were better able to affirm themselves politically than they are at present. It is only the working class, after all, that contains within itself the historical perspective of ridding us of the capitalist state altogether.