The latest government report on low-paid work and the issue of work simply not paying must be greeted with a healthy scepticism and a historical awareness of why there will never be, and from the point of view of the capitalist economy can never be, full employment or an abundance of fulfilling occupations for the workers of the world. Scepticism because we need only examine the record of this administration alone – workfare and the cuts, as two quick examples – to anticipate that the upcoming change in the benefits system to universal credit will result in only more oppression and exploitation of the most vulnerable and economically precarious sections of society, to the benefit of the capitalist class. The government has been toying with different ways to enslave more people and chain them to an occupation – paid or unpaid, as in the Big Society – and the upcoming revamp of the benefits system is a radical threat to workers’ rights that will impoverish more.
In short, benefits is a very different concept from credit. Benefits are held in trust by agencies such as the Job Centre, who are nothing more than that – agents. They facilitate the exchange of funds between benefactors and the beneficiaries – the State and the unemployed. Benefits are paid as compensation for the failure of the government to create an economy capable of adequately supporting the citizens within its borders. Though you would never guess from the superior attitude you are treated to when signing on for JSA, in this situation, legally all the rights and power are with the beneficiaries. This is a hangover from the welfare state created to appease the masses after the Second World War, whereby the socialist minded reimbursed, or bribed, those who were not provided their own source of income by the government- administered economy. The concept of credit, of a loan, is closer to borrowing from a bank, and under Universal Credit, the power and rights will lie solely with the money- lender. This is an intentionally constructed state of affairs to further diminish the scarce protections set up for the most needy in society. The government spokespeople know exactly what they are referring to when they call this the “biggest change to the benefits system since 1945”.
Historical awareness is necessary because this process – the struggle between employer/ employee, capitalist/worker, top/bottom – has been ongoing since the first societies organised around a system of inherent domination. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the concept of wage slavery was widely promoted and discussed by workers as being on a par with chattel slavery, that selling one’s time for the profit of another
was akin to being owned by them, to being their slave. The development of wage slavery as industrialisation boomed lead directly to the development of syndicalism as worker’s organised to try to improve their working conditions and rights.
The propaganda machine in service of the employing class has worked tirelessly over the last century to shatter the stigma of wage slavery and normalise the status of quasi- slavery of employment. Selling ourselves and our time to another is broadly seen as perfectly acceptable, even desirable, and above all, it is promoted as a voluntary decision. Now the government is pushing to remove this last factor, but to do it in such a way as to legitimise forced labour, reviving a class of worker within our society closer to indentured servitude. Notoriously, the syndicates and organisers of the early twentieth century collaborated with this, moving from wage slavery to wage work as they focused more on improving wages rather than taking over the means of production directly. Nowadays, people don’t bat an eyelid at the idea of being employed, and the underlying attitude is high- lighted in our application of the idea of being ‘self-employed’ as the most common alternative. ‘Self-employed’ is a clumsy construction, revealing conceptually how work independent of a boss is barely even expressible except in a crude referential manner.
Various grandiose bearded anarchists of times past have cogitated on wage slavery as a class condition emerging from the existence of private property and the State. Concentration of ownership and the intentional abandonment of property into disuse contribute to the blocking of access for the employees to a means of production, in combination with a constant oversupply of workers, creating a self-perpetuating system of haves and have-nots. Fear of unemployment and subsequent impoverishment and abandonment by society to destitution are motivating factors to keep people in line at work and at home, either too busy or too afraid to challenge the status quo. Waste, excess and even a special class of middle men and bureaucrats who suck up any surplus are all tools to keep prices high and ensure the continuation of a narrow margin of benefit for the workers.
The economy needs the excess labour of the unemployed as a threat to those already subscribed to wage slavery just as the class system needs the poor and the downtrodden as fodder for the continuation for the minority of the opulent. It is essential that a critique of work and its role in society as a system of control and domination is developed and disseminated, so that people might see how they are further being crushed through a vice of wage slavery.