A workhouse without walls

Another winter is upon us, with a bitter wind blasting the doorways which provide the only beds for increasing numbers of Londoners. The side entrance to the Rio Cinema, opposite my house, previously only used as as urinal, now has a regular occupant, as has just about every doorway in this stretch of Kingsland High Street. Yesterday morning, getting off a bus near Liverpool Street Station, my eye was drawn by a festive bunch of balloons outside a door bearing the inscription ‘Dirty Martini: spirited sophistication”.

dirty martini‘The office party season’s started’, was my first thought. Then I realised there was someone asleep there, huddled up against the cold, with a stream of early morning commuters stepping past. There is a peculiar angry stamp that people who work in the City adopt. Probably something to do with the uncomfortable shoes they feel they have to wear for work. The women, especially, in their hard high heels, hammer their way along the pavement as though they have a personal grudge against every slab. It sounds as if a stonemason’s at work. You’d have to be utterly exhausted to sleep right through it.

 rough sleeper with ballonssunrise in the city 2

The sun was rising red in the east and the wind was howling round the nearby skyscrapers – the Heron Tower, the Gherkin and other newcomers whose names I don’t know.  It’s a threatening environment in which to try to find shelter, with a reminder around every corner of wealth and privilege and how tightly it is guarded. The newer of these gleaming glass towers are designed with zero emissions in mind, meaning that there are not even hot air vents to allow a little warmth to reach the destitutes on the streets.

The growing numbers of rough sleepers on the streets are only one of many indications that Britain is increasingly taking on the character of a vast workhouse, but, unlike its 19th century precedecessors, one in which there is not even a roof to keep out the weather. You cannot turn on the radio,  glance at a newspaper or log on to social media without being inundated with evidence: the exponential growth in numbers of people using foodbanks; the ‘sanctioning’ (arbitrary withdrawal of benefits) of claimants for such trivial offences as arriving a few minutes late for an appointment at a Job Centre; people being declared ‘fit for work’ when they are on their deathbeds; a cancer patient in Scotland told to give up his therapy if he wanted to retain his benefits; kids forced into unpaid ‘work placements’. I will not bore you with references. A cursory google will throw up enough horror stories to place you in that almost catatonic state, beyond shock, that so many of us now seem to inhabit.

Suffice it to say, the welfare state that my generation grew up taking for granted (far from perfect as we knew it to be) has morphed into a regime that has anything but welfare as its prime objective (unless we are talking here about the welfare of the occupants of the boardrooms of those gleaming glass towers in the City). Increasingly run under incompetently drafted service contracts (whose main feature is a requirement to meet targets) by multinational corporations with a firm eye on the bottom line, the main effect of this regime is to harrass and humiliate the most vulnerable people in society and transform them into a forced reserve army of labour, with no sense of entitlement, coerced to work below the cost of subsistence.

It is kept in place partly by a series of unexamined shibboleths perpetuated in a variety of ways – by the mass media, by the main political parties and by others – that are increasing taken for granted by the general public. These include the beliefs that:

  • The British welfare state is too generous. This is why so many immigrants are attracted here.
  • The welfare bill is too high. The only way the economy can claw its way out of recession and into growth is by more cuts to services and benefits
  • There are still too many benefit scroungers. They are stealing from hard-working people and need to be flushed out and punished.
  • The tax credit is a progressive innovation.
  • The Baby Boomer generation are an unaffordable burden on the young.They should be made to give up some of their privileges.
  • Raising the minimum wage would place an intolerable burden on small businesses and make life impossible for the entrepreneurs who create jobs.
  • Increasing income tax punishes hard-working people.
  • Increasing corporation tax drives out investment and destroys jobs.
  • The private sector can deliver services more efficiently than the state.
  • There is no alternative to continuing austerity.

I believe all these statements to be dangerous myths and I hope to demonstrate why in a series of blog posts of which this is the first.

My reason for doing so is to contribute to a debate which I think is opening up quite broadly, though not in a very joined-up way, about what sort of welfare state is desirable or achievable in these times. What alternative is there to the workhouse without walls?

It is often thought, on the left, that demands for new welfare models are necessarily ‘transitional’ (in Trotsky’s sense): demands that cannot be met without a revolutionary change to the whole system. It may well be that this is the case for some of the options I hope to be discussing. But I would like to emphasise now that this is not necessarily the case for all of them because many of the features of the current system are actually dysfunctional for capitalism itself. This can be illustrated by just a few examples.

Here’s one: in the hypercasualised labour markets of zero-hours contracts and crowdsourcing where people are employed for a few hours, or even minutes, at a time, a welfare model that assumes that someone is either ‘in employment’ or ‘unemployed’ simply does not fit the reality. A more flexible benefit system would actually make it easier for employers to tap into these forms of labour.

And here’s another: employers are finding it so difficult to recruit workers with children because of the lack of unaffordable childcare facilities that the Confederation of British Industry is now campaigning for an expansion of free childcare (see   http://www.channel4.com/news/free-childcare-workers-business-britain)

Capitalism has historically benefitted from the strong welfare states to be found in the Nordic countries and from the British NHS. It is much easier for companies to locate somewhere where they know the workforce is educated and has its health taken care of by the state than to have to negotiate expensive company health insurance schemes (as many large companies had to do in the United States in the latter part of the 20th Century).

Too much poverty leads to a drop in consumer demand which is bad for business (just look at how the big supermarket chains are suffering right now) and too much destitution will, sooner or later, lead to breakdowns in public health and public order.

It would be nice to think that this question – What sort of welfare state do we want?  – will be on the agenda for public debate in the lead-up to the next General Election. I’m not holding my breath.

But watch this space.

8 thoughts on “A workhouse without walls

  1. Perfect… those myths are the same wide spreaded down here in Brasil by our tendencious press manipulating lots of unawareness people, generating hate and throwing them against government…

  2. Thank you Ursula! I´m sorry to say that you find the very same fenomea in Sweden and Stockholm. It has to be a stop! Someone sad that we are lacking thinking grownup people.
    I agree.

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