Wildcat 84,Spring 2009

[Home] [English Index]< --> [Archives (German)] [Order] [Contact]

State control and proletarian reproduction in the UK

german version

Control has always been part of the function of the welfare state. After the second world war in particular, it was not only a matter of keeping dissatisfied and rebellious workers quiet through concessions, but also of integrating them into the state and better controlling them through a centralised organisation of their reproduction; thus the state gained a clearer view of the living conditions of workers and was able to regulate certain aspects more pointedly. The impoverishment of the population after the war posed another threat as it endangered the workers' ability to work!

Since the Thatcher years, the question of social reproduction mediated through the welfare state has increasingly been narrowed down to the level of the individual. The 'New Labour' government has continued to privatise, fragment and cut social services. Meanwhile those depending on material state support, i.e. the lower strata of the working class, have to make themselves more visible or accessible to the state than ever before. This tendency is inseparable from a long-term 'supply side' policy of increasing labour market competition, 'flexibility' in hiring and firing and wage stagnation, which has led to the growing indebtedness of working class households, making them answerable not only to the demands of the state and employers, but also to those of creditors. The state retreats from the macro-regulation of production, while increasing control on the micro-level (i.e. reproduction of the single worker). Thus the labour market and reproduction strategies of the neoliberal project go hand in hand. Control of the individual ensures her dependency on the labour market by making other, (self-organised, semi-legal etc.) forms of reproduction impossible. Might there be a starting point for common struggles in the prospect that more and more former 'good citizens' will be exposed to this control apparatus as they come to depend on 'social services' (i.e. material state support) in the course of the crisis?

It's your fault

During Tony Blair's term as PM more than 3,000 new criminal offences were created, mostly petty things like unlicensed trading, unregistered babysitting, cigarettes stamped out on the ground, parents 'allowing' children's truancy, drinking alcohol in 'dry' areas (e.g. semi-gentrified proletarian suburbs: yuppie street cafes are exempt of course), or low level benefit fraud such as working while on Jobseeker's Allowance or disability benefit, subletting or living with a partner whilst claiming as single person. The day-to-day behaviour of the working/claimant class is increasingly criminalised, with enforcement through 'saturation' policing of 'problem' areas and surveillance cameras at every corner, plus overtly class-specific punishments such as eviction from council housing. To this was added the introduction of the Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) in 1998, a kind of ad hoc court order which criminalises unwanted but otherwise legal behaviour for a particular person only. It can prohibit one's presence at certain places or specific actions, along the lines of: »you may not enter the main street« or »you may not have visitors at home«. Furthermore, a police practice which had already been widely used since the mid-90s was legalised in 2004: in England, Northern Ireland and Wales 'suspects' have their DNA sampled and these samples are stored, even if the 'suspicion' is never confirmed. The UK has the world's largest DNA database in relation to population: 7% overall, with 'non-white' ethnic categories (according to police classification) making up 80% of samples held.

It's in your nature

It is not only zero tolerance police work that increases the control of social reproduction. The health and social services play a large part in pushing the responsibility for the deteriorating circumstances of the working class onto the individual, even ascribing them to her as 'innate character defects'. The state demands that each individual change actively: to an increasing extent, those who don't are monitored and sometimes punished. For example the NHS (now a complex entanglement of 'public-private' provision and funding) runs 'prevention' campaigns such as Your 5 a Day (prescribing 'correct' eating habits) and others targeting smokers (GPs get a bonus for each healed addict) and the 'overweight'. We are held responsible for our health. People who keep on eating cheap food 'intentionally' may be denied the best medical treatment, and can be pushed to the back of the waiting lists or put on an enforced diet; overweight or smoking women may be denied IVF treatment, couples with 'unhealthy lifestyles' will have difficulty adopting a child. Pregnant women and young mothers are the most exposed to these control mechanisms, which are primarily concerned with the unborn or newborn child's health. At the same time GPs are being urged to stop giving long-term sickness notes to the chronically ill, in order to reduce the number of sickness benefit claimants1: more institutional pressure can be exerted on claimants 1 of the dole (rebranded as 'Jobseeker's Allowance').

Recipients of Jobseeker's Allowance or other social benefits are controlled and punished more than anyone else. This has intensified since 2004 when expandable (and continually expanded) categories such as at risk or hard-to-reach began to be used to classify large swathes of the population. In order to pre-empt 'potential problems' ('criminal' behaviour etc.), people are categorised in risk groups, their data collected, stored and followed up in order to 'support' them in 'working their way out' of their situation (which basically consists of being classified as at risk). Those who are not rendered employable by this blackmail receive the hard-to-reach title, which can lead to tougher state interference: forced labour, eviction from council flats, children taken away by social services, cutting of benefits. In any case data will be collected again (these data can be used in court cases), relating not just to the 'HTR' individual herself but also to all her surroundings. A family with one member unemployed, living in a council flat in a poor neighbourhood, will be classified at risk. Those in this category must constantly prove to the agencies that they are 'willing to integrate' (they can do this by taking part in job training, opening doors to unannounced social workers, informing on other people, etc.), because if they don't they will be pushed further down into the hard-to-reach group.

'Mistakes' (e.g. overpayment of benefits or tax credits, or incorrect data held by institutions) are not blamed on the state, but always on its 'clients'. If they cannot answer for any anomaly, they risk court proceedings or at least loss of income. If the data deviate from reality it is the claimant's obligation to make sure the data get updated, or else she has to adjust her life to the data. A single mom on benefits has to take the first shitty job coming her way or at least take part in further education programmes and send her children to a Sure Start children's centre2, where her dealings with the child are observed by social workers and she is taught the art of English cooking; she has to assent to the recording and inter-institutional sharing of data, otherwise the child cannot get the place at Sure Start; if she refuses she may be classified as hard to reach and threatened with loss of benefits or losing her kids. If a child plays truant too often, steals chocolate or gets pregnant 'too early', the child and its parents are at risk.

The focus of state intervention is no longer material support (as in trying to find a larger flat for a five person household crammed into one room), but data-collection and behaviour-modification at individual level 3. Social workers have to collect data held by other institutions (school, job centre, prison, hospital, GP etc.) and add it to their own databases, they must arrange interviews, interrogate neighbours, monitor children individually etc. And all information has to be passed on to other agencies.
Possibilities for survival through the combination of meagre state benefits and semi-legal, independent reproduction strategies are increasingly blocked off in order to push people into the labour market, to have them compete against one another and against the rest of the working class as a reserve army for the worst-paid jobs.

It's your default

The real income of workers has decreased or stagnated for years now and at the same time more and more formerly free services are charged for. Those who can afford it insure themselves privately in order to not have to put up with endless waiting lists for surgery. State schools funded through local councils are disappearing and increasingly replaced by Academies 4. Many working class families have indebted themselves for medical provision, their children's education or a private pension insurance because the state pension is not enough to survive on. The cuts in social benefits even forced families to take on credit simply to survive. The privatisation of council housing led to a expansion of mortgage debt. This credit expansion led to a disguised and uncontested transfer of social protection onto the individual. Aggressive credit offers by banks did the rest to make workers directly dependent on the financial market. Workers are answerable not only to their employers (who are often answerable to creditors' demands themselves) but also to creditors 5. During the »credit crisis« bills are presented: creditors, debt collectors and bailiffs are the other ugly faces of control. The worker-consumer finds herself in a double form of dependency which makes common struggles seem almost impossible.

Meanwhile the state apparatus organising social reproduction is itself dependent on the financial market. Social services, housing, health, education, public facilities such as libraries, swimming pools etc., have slowly and increasingly been part-privatised through the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), under which the state remains liable in the long term for debts contracted by private 'service providers' on private financial markets. 6 In this way workers and claimants are made doubly dependent on the credit markets: at once personally indebted and 'supported'/policed with machinery which the state has pawned.

Happiness can't buy you money

Only through such a degree of immiseration, control and dependency can the worker be forced to join in the cut-throat competition of the labour market. Detours via semi-legal forms of independent reproduction are cut off more and more often. Before the time of 'New Labour' it was generally easier to claim unemployment or sickness benefits while working 'illegally' on the side; in many cases informal sector wages have also fallen since then. Many other tricks for leading a life relatively independent of bank credit or state pennies have now effectively been criminalised: e.g. ticketless subway use and reselling of used tickets, doctor's notes (circulation amongst friends of the names of the right doctors to contact to get onto Incapacity Benefit), subletting of council flats, neighbourhood help against debt collectors and bailiffs, all kinds of »grey market« transactions, and the sharing (or keeping secret) of information useful for outwitting the social services, tax, and immigration systems etc.

The multi-institutional enforcement drive against 'anti-social behaviour' targets precisely these kinds of 'shadow economy' practice. The threat of a compulsory biometric ID card, attached to a database facilitating co-ordination among enforcement agencies, remains. (Recent reports suggest that the database might be established without the card, i.e. the element which has been almost the sole focus of middle class 'civil liberties' campaigners). For people who depend on the grey market this would be a disastrous loss of crucial anonymity. Thus, »off to work«: the next proposed stage of 'welfare reform' will accelerate and systematise the drive to push Incapacity Benefit claimants onto Jobseeker's Allowance (i.e. benefit levels one third lower and intensive coercion to compete for any work available). From 2010 onwards the 'long-term' unemployed will be required to perform »work-equal activity«: either eight hours a day of closely supervised 'job search' 7 or forced »community service« labour (the term comes straight from the criminal justice system). Additionally, lie detectors are now being used to scan claimants' phone calls. Meanwhile individual competition is promoted and grounds for common struggle obscured in »disadvantaged areas« not only by further stratifying the class (encouraging and rewarding informing on neighbours, rationalising away necessary resources, »personalising« benefit criteria, ghettoising and internally stratifying council estates) 8 , but also through 'community' projects targeting school children in particular (the whole class has to take part) but also the unemployed and single mothers. Eager participation is encouraged and rewarded along competitive lines: s/he who does the best job of 'looking after' the gardens/pensioners/autistic children/church yard etc. wins.

Defending anonymity

'Civil liberties' activists complain about state control of 'everything and everyone'. They claim that England is a "nanny state" (check out the belittlement of childcare, incidentally!) that tells us what's good or bad for us. According to these critics 'we' private individuals can look after ourselves and don't need state support or control. The less state the better. But they forget that it is the welfare state that made possible their own status and that of the rest of the »middle class«.

Cheap state-financed housing (council flats), first introduced in late 19th century under the aegis of coercive 'slum clearance', was expanded through most of the 20th century; eventually Thatcher gave 'aspirational' worker-tenants a subsidised 'right to buy'. After the second world war the state pension system was strengthened and a comprehensive free health care system introduced; the massive welfare apparatus itself was and continues (under part-privatisation) to be a huge employer. Access to higher education, previously a privilege of the higher classes, was dramatically widened from the '60s onwards. All this made it possible for the many workers to 'climb the social ladder', get better jobs, save, even own their homes and define themselves as part of the middle class. One important aspect of this social change was the perception of this 'climbing up' as a »personal achievement«, as something which everyone had managed »by and for themselves«. This disguised on the one hand the dependency of the middle class on the welfare state and led on the other hand to a stratification of the class: today the majority of the British population defines itself as middle class!

The welfare state 'rewards' behaviour that conforms to state and market imperatives, while increasing the pressure on those who can't or won't allow themselves to be 'included'. The 'civil liberties' critique, namely that biometric data collection, ID cards etc. are a state intrusion into »our« private sphere, forgets that all the control mechanisms described here specifically target those who depend on state support. The same holds for zero tolerance policies and the criminalising of small offences, which are clearly class-specific punishments. 9 Therefore the argument that databases are 'inefficient', collecting data without making distinctions, losing data etc., misses the actual issue; from the point of view of the state the system works if the information contained is legally valid: in the event of a discrepancy, it's the individual's responsibility to explain why his/her life doesn't match the data. The 'personal freedom' defended by middle-class civil libertarians disguises the class content of the whole thing. Everything that does not contribute directly to GDP must be exposed and punished (if not by prison then at least by withdrawing state support), no matter how small the drug deal, no matter how informal the arrangement. But it is also important not to romanticise semi-legal or illegal reproduction strategies (Gangster Rap, Ghetto Style etc.). These strategies are often themselves only part of a structure of pressure, coercion, blackmail etc. The small-time dealer's »cool, I'm making a whole lot of money« could just as well be heard as: »my mom is a single mom, I've got four siblings and am the only one bringing any money in.« 10 Romanticisation of these practices defeats any attempt to fight against the circumstances that make illegal/semi-legal reproduction strategies necessary in the first place.

Collective refusal of micro-control?

Unlike middle class civil libertarians, those affected know very well about the class-specific nature of the attack. But collective resistance to individualised controls of individuals and their surroundings is difficult, especially when visible action can be dangerous for some of those affected (migrants, those with criminal records etc.). But the biggest obstacle for a collective struggle is class stratification. Rupture between the 'aspirational' working class and those categorised at risk or hard to reach is the most important result of control strategies which denounce refusal as pathological behaviour – and this is greatly helped by the media. But this rupture also has a material basis in the fact that people nearly worked themselves to death during the last 'boom' in order to get property (i.e. debt). In this they have actually developed what social service 'users' are blamed for: an entitlement mentality and with it the belief that others are 'not entitled to claim'.

Such self-stratification within the class has been fed by policies such as cuts in social support and the ghettoisation of council housing. This has amplified the 'aspirational' workers' horror of the 'underclass', as well as the fear that the latter will increasingly make use of violence and crime; all this has increased enmity between the 'hard working' and 'hard to reach' parts of the class. David Blunkett, Home Secretary under Tony Blair and one of the strongest proponents of micro-control, always underlined his arguments with references to his own working class background. 11
This class stratification has developed over centuries. Will it be challenged by the crisis? Does the social climb-down of many 'aspirational' workers lead to solidarity or intensified individual competition on the lowest level?

Abolition of class stratification

Former owner-occupiers are already becoming benefit claimants, and their conditions will deteriorate rapidly as the state imposes more 'austerity' to deal with its massive debt. The first-hand experience of newly-unemployed skilled workers, bankrupt debtors, foreclosed former homeowners etc. gives them every reason to recognise the causes of their predicament in capitalism and property relations. If at least some of this group fight against the unfamiliar forms of control they encounter, and in doing so join with others who have long been exposed to the same things, the ground could be laid for a common struggle with the potential to overcome individual anti-authoritarianism, communitarian identity-preservation and pious middle class abstraction. Eventually anger might no longer be confined to the individual transgressions of bankers, politicians etc.; strikers might be perceived by consumers not as killjoys but as a good example, worth supporting through secondary action 12; union leaders might no longer be able to defuse conflicts by protecting single professional groups. Institutional, systemic and class issues could take on any number of immediate, concrete forms: organised action against private firms brokering work to dole claimants and charities/NGOs organising 'community service' for the unemployed; refusal of forced labour for benefits; refusal of 'services' that come from such labour; action against doctors employed to move people from sickness benefits to the dole; organising inside the medical sector in support of sickness benefit claimants; collective defence against eviction of tenants, subletters and squatters; collective pressure on landlords (whether state, 'social' or private) to lower rents and improve infrastructure; struggle against the further sale of council housing combined with refusal of the restrictions imposed on new tenants; collective organisation of childcare amongst unemployed or part-time-working adults, bypassing the alternatives of state control or high private childcare fees; identity 'distribution', i.e. sabotage of data collection and the associated coercion by distributing 'personal' data and claims between several people, etc. And maybe then 'something for nothing' really will be demanded at last: an 'entitlement mentality' as it should be!

1 The number of sickness claims increased drastically during the Thatcher government when the unemployed were moved onto sickness benefit, especially in the de-industrialised areas, to keep official jobless numbers down.
2 Sure Start is a typical New Labour project, a combination of nursery, health 'centre' and job centre, where the whole family can be 'looked after' under one roof, supervised by social workers.
3 The financial plans of the NHS (health service) and other welfare-related government department of the last years show clearly that money has been withdrawn from frontline services and put into outsourced IT development.
4 An Academy is a public-privately managed school the private sponsor has to provide £2 million; the government pays about 25 million for starting-up costs. Academies are run by national curriculum guidelines but the private sponsor is in the majority in the school board; teachers no longer have to be registered with the GTC (General Teaching Council) and work under worse conditions than at state Comprehensives. The exclusion rate of 'problem pupils' is much higher at academies than at other schools. CCTV cameras are routinely installed in class rooms.
5 Average private household debt, excluding housing mortgages, is £9600. Including mortgage debts the figure is £59, 670
6 Anti-social solidarityin Wildcat 83 / www.david-morrison.org.uk/pfi/pfi.htm/ www.metamute.org/en/The-3-Ps).
7 The government recently awarded the first round of private contracts to operate the combined dole payment/ job placement service. Contractors will be paid according to the number of placements made, getting the money after the ex-claimant has been in a job for only 12 weeks!
8 A recent addition has been the community's say in the form of punishment: it can now decide what kind of forced labour should be performed by the bad-deed-doer. He/She then has to wear a jacket whilst performing it, glowing with the words »Community Payback« in neon on the back.
9 The 'new' crime register mostly criminalises a certain kind of 'class typical' behaviour outside of work – with ASBOs, court proceedings for benefit fraud etc., with the threat of punishments such as cutting off state support (money) and the eviction from council housing. Surveillance cameras are mostly found in poorer areas of the country – 100 of them in a single school in Stockwell, South London! – unless they are protecting valuable property. Posters encouraging denunciation of 'benefit fraud' are all over Tower Hamlets, Islington, Hackney and Brixton (poor inner-city neighbourhoods of London) but there are none to be found in Chelsea or Kensington (rich inner-city London neighbourhoods). The ministries dealing with work, welfare, tax, immigration, police/law/prison, housing, health, education and schools, environment and 'communities and local government' all have authorisation to share and connect their functions and information closely with other departments/ministries. What is presented as technical innovation that supposedly simplifies the access to social services is in truth directed against certain social strata.
10 Black proletarians in Brixton for example know very well about their dependency on illegal reproduction strategies. More than 10 years after the last Brixton riot (1981, 1985, 1995) passers-by will still often build a protective wall around a teenager about to be searched or taken in by police. This is on the one hand a struggle against clearly racist police procedures (not only during 'stop and search'), but it is also a struggle against the destruction of independent reproduction strategies. Many (mostly male) teenagers earn money for themselves and their family by selling (heavily diluted) drugs to white British party kids. Large parts of the community depend on this source of income.
11 It remains to be seen what consequences wage cuts and an explosive front-line position facing those damaged by the crisis will have (one positive example was the dole workers/claimants experiment in Brighton 1999; www.wildcat-www.de/wildcat/71/w71_dole.htm [...] )
12 i.e. active support and law-breaking as for example seen at the secondary action for the unemployed at the Lindsey strikes

[Home] [English Index]< --> [Archives (German)] [Order] [Contact]