Marx’s Capital is a good place to start if you want to understand the hidden agenda behind the misnamed Welfare Reform Bill currently making its way through Parliament.
Much of the critical comment voiced in the House of Lords and in liberal papers like The Guardian is, of course, entirely justified. A major aim is to make £18 billion of ‘savings’ by cutting the incomes of the poor – in order to shore up finance capital.
Another major aim is to divide the working class. In this respect, the Tories are on a roll. The government has been pumping out speeches and press releases attacking ‘welfare scroungers’ and ‘benefits tourists’ to justify the attacks, and their media echo-chambers, from the BBC to The Daily Mail, have been faithfully reporting them.
Opinion polls suggest that up to four in five people think benefits should be capped. This is shocking and sinister. It means that millions of people facing cuts in their pay and pensions are turning on the poor instead of the bankers. It means the targets are people on £25,000, not people on £2.5 million.
Shocking and sinister. Especially when given a racist twist by tabloid bile about immigrants on benefits. The politicians responsible for this – and the rightwing journalists who do their bidding – are moral scum.
But we know all this. What is less well-known is the deeper purpose. This is what Marx says in Chapter 25 of Capital:
'The over-work of the employed part of the working class swells the ranks of its reserve, while, conversely, the greater pressure that the reserve by its competition exerts on the employed workers forces them to submit to over-work and subjects them to the dictates of capital…
The industrial reserve army, during the periods of stagnation and average prosperity, weighs down the active army of workers; during the periods of over-production and feverish activity, it puts a curb on their pretensions.'
In other words, ‘the industrial reserve army’ – the unemployed – are not an accidental feature of capitalism: they are an inherent necessity, their presence a standing threat to all employed workers of the fate that awaits them if they do not accept the bosses’ terms, and therefore a permanent drag on attempts by organised workers to improve their lot by collective action.
We have seen a recent example. The latest estimates for the number of public-sector workers who took strike action on 30 November put the total at only just over one million. Anecdotal evidence suggests that only two-thirds or fewer of the union membership actually struck in many workplaces. Some workers voted to strike, but did not actually come out on the day.
Why is this? Presumably not because workers want to pay more, wait longer, and get less from their pensions. Presumably not because workers think their pensions should be cut while top directors award themselves 50% pay increases and million-pound bonuses.
It is mainly because of fear. The whole system runs on fear. Capitalism is a regime of fear. Fear of unemployment. Fear of eviction. Fear of getting into debt. Fear of bills and demands to pay. Fear of poverty. Fear of the boss, the landlord, and the debt-collector.
Many workers who supported the public-sector pensions strike did not take action because they worried their card would be marked in a workplace dominated by management bullies, weak unions, and fear of the sack.
Government policy is designed to ratchet up that fear, so that it eats like an acid into the well-being of working people, making them submissive and uncomplaining whatever the deal. That is the Welfare Reform Bill’s hidden agenda.
Its target is not just – nor even mainly – the poor: its target is the employed working class. By making the poor poorer, fear of unemployment gnaws more deeply at those with jobs, making it easier to cut wages, increase hours, and accelerate work-rates.
The effects are palpable. It is estimated that in the 1970s, wages accounted for about 65% of gross national product. Today the proportion is estimated to be around 50%. There has already been a massive shift of wealth from labour to capital, from workers to the bosses and the bankers.
The industrial reserve army has been central to that process. It enables modern sweatshops like Pret A Manger to get away with paying £6.40 an hour. It means that one in five of those in work earn less than a living wage. It leaves 13 million people living in poverty.
Overturning capital’s regime of fear was a great historic achievement of the post-war working class. A booming economy, full employment, and an organised, combative, ‘take-no-shit’ working class won both higher wages and a welfare state.
The two went hand-in-hand: the bargaining position of workers depended on a strong safety-net. That is why, since the 1980s, the British ruling class has had welfare in its sights.
The lesson is obvious. Every struggle is connected with every other. The pensions strike was weaker than it should have been, and the sell-out has been easier to impose, because of the fear that stalks the workplaces. The Welfare Reform Bill is designed to ratchet up that fear. If the poor are screwed, it will be easier to screw the workers.
That is why we have to build a single, united, national, mass movement against austerity. The ruling class has launched a generalised class war. We have to create the organisational framework for generalised resistance.
In the parks, halls and public spaces around Kings Cross
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