Police and a homeless man Police and a homeless man. Photo: Jeremy Brooks / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0, license linked below article

John Clarke on the devlopment of the working class and the law and how the latter is a tool of the capitalist state to control the former

I was recently asked to make a presentation to a group of law students at the University of Toronto. They had all chosen, as part of their legal training, to work as advocates for people living in poverty and to provide advice and representation on problems with social benefit systems, employers, landlords, immigration authorities and suchlike. Based on my experiences over three decades as an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), I was asked to speak on the question of the relationship between poor people and the law. This prompted me to think through the role of the capitalist state in regulating the poor.

Regulating the poor

You can’t properly consider the place of the poor in this society without appreciating how the working class was created in the early stages of capitalism. In Tudor England, in the 1500s and 1600s, the peasantry was being brutally dispossessed and turned into a class of wage earners. A portion of that newly emerging class were effectively turned into a ‘surplus’ population that had no regular employment but that posed a danger to public order.

The most impoverished section of the working class existed outside or on the periphery of the job market. An oversupply of labour obviously gives employers additional bargaining power but the threat of unrest from those who have been socially abandoned requires state intervention and, from very early on, this took the form of both repressive control and reluctant social provision. The Tudor authorities began by very vigorously employing the first option.

In 1530, those considered unable to work were issued beggar’s licences but ‘sturdy vagabonds’ were subjected to whipping, branding, mutilation and hanging. During the reign of Henry VIII alone, more than 70,000 jobless ‘vagabonds’ were executed for the most trivial offences. Yet, the level of social dislocation and unrest proved too much even for the Tudors with their ‘royal monopoly of violence.’ Their back up plan, which in modified forms has been preserved to the present day, was to minimally provide for the needs of the poorest in society, while ensuring that the delivery of such measures didn’t discourage the pursuit of even the lowest paying jobs.

The Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 ensured that parishes would provide for the destitute in the form of either ‘indoor relief,’ through a system of workhouses or ‘outdoor relief’ that would not require residency in these dreaded institutions. Incarceration in the workhouse was resisted with great determination over many generations and, in the face of this fight back, the authorities were compelled to provide outdoor relief on a much greater scale than they would have wished to.

The balance between repression and reluctant social provision, as methods of regulating the poor, has certainly rested on the threat of resistance and unrest to a great degree. There is, however, another vital consideration and that is the changing needs of capital and the intensity of exploitation that it seeks to impose. So it was that the advent of the Industrial Revolution greatly increased the need for a submissive workforce. Thus, the first half of the 19th Century saw a major innovation in state repression and, at the same time, much harsher and more restrictive forms of social provision.

As brutal as the Tudor period had been, the actual ability to rapidly and consistently deploy state power had been relatively weak. The advent of modern policing changed all this dramatically. The formation of the Met in London, in 1829, ushered in an ability to impose social control on working class communities that Henry VIII’s advisers could never have dreamed of. Now, the state and its enforcers became a ubiquitous presence among potentially restive populations. Centres of concentrated urban squalor, supplying labour for the ‘dark Satanic mills,’ could now be monitored and contained in ways that have been previously impossible.

A comparable tightening of the screws was also conducted with regard to social provision and a Poor Law Amendment Act was adopted, in 1834, to render the system far more restrictive and punitive. This based itself on a principle of ‘less eligibility’ that stipulated that relief should be, if possible, lower than the worst wages but that it should also be delivered in a fashion that was calculatedly as degrading as possible. This meant that the workhouse residency requirement would be much more vigorously enforced. Just as the general working conditions were being rendered hellish, the state did all it could to ensure that there would be no survivable alternative to paid work.

Repression and concession

These twin methods of regulation, policing and punitive forms of provision, have remained the main ways in which the state and its laws interact with the poor. The populations targeted by the police are uniformly poor and potentially rebellious but racism has also played a major part in the development of the police function. Racialised immigrant communities are singled out and focused on to an enormous degree. In the US, the development of policing is tied to the slave patrols that existed from the 1700s. The RCMP, Canada’s federal police force, emerged out of the drive to dispossess the Indigenous nations and to confine them on impoverished reserves.

The actual implementation of both the repressive option and measures of reluctant concession have required a creative tension between the needs of capital and the body of basic rights that are supposed to exist within a liberal democracy. I once came across a cop issuing an infraction ticket to a homeless man in a Toronto park. Our organisation helped people contest such charges in court, so I went over to see what was going on. The man had been ticketed for ‘camping in a park without a permit.’ He clearly wasn’t camping but, as he laid the flagrantly false charge, the cop candidly acknowledged that he was responding to a call by local business people to clear the homeless out of the park.

Local police stations in Toronto meet regularly with business associations and it is almost certain that senior officers had issued instructions to act as this cop was doing. The police were working to remove visibly poor people from a public location they had every right to be in at the behest of business owners. This is, of course, utterly unlawful conduct and yet anyone who experiences homelessness will be only too aware that the incident I describe is entirely typical of the treatment the police dish out. Their primary day to day function is persecute and intimidate poor and racialised communities and this social control function goes back to the very foundations of modern policing.

When it comes to reluctant concession and systems of social provision, a similar gulf between declared intentions and practical reality exists. Those who function as advocates for people trying to obtain social benefits will be fully aware that a climate of denial permiates such systems and that people are prevented from obtaining the income they are entitled to as a matter of routine. I once dealt with a case in London, Ontario of a woman who had been denied benefits on the grounds that her unemployment was due to circumstances within her control. She had not chosen to leave her job nor were there any allegations of misconduct. She and a bunch of others had simply been let go because of a lack of orders coming into the company. Even under their rules, she seemed entirely blameless.

When we contacted the benefits office they calmly explained to us that this woman had given up another job a year before in order to take the one she had just lost. If she had stayed in her original employment, they reasoned, she might still be working and so they deemed her to be at fault. Of course, such a monstrous decision couldn’t be justified but we can be sure that similar abuses were carried off successfully on an ongoing basis.

It is worth noting that, in the province of Ontario, there are court decisions going back to the 1970s that state that the delivery of social benefit systems must conform to principles of natural justice and administrative fairness, yet the day to day working of those systems makes a mockery of these pious declarations decades after they were delivered. In the UK, it is well understood that the appalling treatment of the poor that was depicted in Ken Loach’s film, I, Daniel Blake, actually understands the horrors of the real situation.

The lesson to be drawn from what I have set out is that, from the early days of capitalism to the present, the power of the employers has been maximised by ensuring that those forced into poverty are as powerless and vulnerable as possible. As the present cost of living crisis and the desperately bleak economic situation massively intensify the impacts and scale of poverty, it is essential that a united working class movement place a priority in advancing comprehensive demands on income, housing and questions that relate to the needs of the poor. We must build a struggle that defends past gains but that leaves no one behind.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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