Capitalism is based on exploitation. That’s to say at root, it is exploitation. Without exploitation there could be no profit, because profit is the difference between the value of a worker’s labour and their compensation for it. This contradiction is the foundation of all class struggle – the employers always want to extract more value from their employees, and the employees desire the opposite. How much better for an employer then – and how much worse for the employee – for there to be a wage of zero!
This is – or at least was – the cornerstone of the coalition’s workfare policy. The long-term unemployed would be forced to work for nothing, for a period of up to six months, after which the employer – likely a huge corporation such as Tesco, Asda or Burger King, may decide to reward a productive employee with some pay. But then again – unless the employee was particularly productive – why would they bother? Why settle for surplus value of say 75% when you could have 100 from another vulnerable conscript?
And that was undoubtedly the coalition government’s own calculation, for all the ridiculous propaganda about ‘providing experience’. After all, the coalition’s cuts have greatly worsened unemployment, and much worse is on the way. The ratio of Jobseekers’ Allowance claimants to vacancies is currently 4.6 to 1, and climbing. Of course, this does not count the people on other benefits or none at all who are looking for work, nor those who are currently in paid employment. Even people with lots of work experience are struggling to find paid work – especially amongst the over fifties. In such circumstances, any tiny ‘economic growth’ is going to come entirely from the more thorough exploitation of those in employment. If they are not even paid at all, profit levels will rise all the more.
All this is a downward pressure on those who are paid for their labour, and judging by the public reaction to what Laurie Penny has labelled “a line in the sand”, working class people are now seeing the connection. While workers have seen the inflation-adjusted worth of their pay tumble since 2008, Tesco et al are raking it in – directly and indirectly at our expense. Many millions understand that wage slavery is bad enough; actual slavery is just taking the piss. As a result, many of those corporations who stood to make a killing from workfare have now backed out, or are looking at actually paying those who make them money. This is a serious gain, and is not to be sniffed at.
The same applies to the coalition’s retreat over the mandatory nature of workfare. As public opposition grew last week, government ministers got themselves in all kinds of a muddle, denying that there was any mandatory element at all. Ed Vaizey’s abject performance on Question Time was perhaps the most humorous example of this. The DWP has been caught throwing references to compulsion down an Orwellian memory hole, but it remains to be seen what effect this will have on the ground, i.e in the job centre.
With this in mind, the Boycott Workfare group are planning a week of actions, culminating on Saturday 3rd of March. Take a look at their website and get involved! After all, if you are working class, this is an issue of self defence!