Working for Welfare in the Antipodes: An Incarnation of Wage-Slavery
Issue #69, June 2004
Work for the Dole
Now work for the dole, you bastards
Take that gleam of hope from your eye
Just work for the dole, you bastards
Or watch your children die
We've got batons and bullets, you bastards
We'll see you all toe the line
But we'd keep you down much better
If it weren't for these communist swine
— 'Workers Art', 1933
Bludgers on the Dole
In December 1997, the Australian Federal government introduced a widespread "work for the dole" programme supposedly based on the principle of "mutual obligation" between long-term unemployed and the State. Whilst it initially applied for younger people (19 to 24 years of age), it has been progressively extended, first to include 25 to 34 year olds, and more recently 35-39 year olds. According to the government the objective of the programme is to "provide valuable work experience to unemployed people", to "develop good work habits in unemployed people", to "involve local communities in activities that provide for unemployed people and assist them at the end of their activity and "provide communities with activities (facilities and services) which are of value to them".
Conveniently forgotten is the fact the introduction of the work-for-the-dole scheme occurred after the sordid public vilification on the mass media television programme A Current Affair in 1996. The target of this campaign to equate unemployment with laziness and long-hair were the Paxtons, three unemployed youth (Shane, Bindi and Mark) who didn't take kindly to having to move 3,000 kilometers to an island off the Queensland coast for a menial temporary job at a resort (at the same time, the Prime Minister wouldn't move from Sydney to Canberra — a mere four-hour trip). At the height of the frenzy, Australia's biggest selling newspaper, the Herald Sun, conducted a telephone poll where ninety-five percent of respondants said that they should have their dole cut off.
The resort owner later admitted that the jobs were offered to get publicity and had gone into actually receivership six days earlier. Nonetheless, it didn't stop populist commentator John Laws describing the Paxtons as "putrid," with the Prime Minister describing them as "bludgers" and Employment Minister Tony Abbot beginning his campaign against "job snobs." Those who broke ranks in the capitalist press were treated harshly; when Paul Barber, a journalist at the Melbourne radio station 3AW, attacked A Current Affair's treatment of the Paxtons and urged a public boycott, he was sacked and TV Channel 9 withdrew $300,000 worth of advertising from the radio station.
Whilst many community organizations — themselves subject to declining grants — have made use of the new circumstances, consistent reports indicate that the Work For the Dole scheme completely fails to satisfy its own criteria. Studies by the Australian Council for Social Services and the federal Department of Family and Community Services indicates that work-for-the-dole participants were less likely to enter paid work than those who were not forced into scheme. It also discovered that the scheme reduced the motivation of participants because of the stigma attached to it. In the three years that the work-for-the-dole scheme was introduced, there was a rise of 187 percent in punitive punishments meted out by the Department of Social Security.
So if the work-for-the-dole scheme fails its own criteria, one may justly ask what's the point of its continuation? Is it personal vindictiveness against the unemployed on the part of members of the conservative government with an extreme version of the Protestant work-ethic? Is it populist appeasement for further election victories? Undoubtedly these play a significant role if comments from the Prime Minister are to believed ("an example of how government can help instill a work ethic in our young people," "the dole system ...told them that dropping out of school, out of their communities, escaping personal responsibility, was acceptable and that the taxpayer would foot the bill"). But it would be extremely erroneous to attempt to divorce these factors from the general principles that govern labour relations in a capitalist system. Reformation of disturbed psychic states that have a biblical attitude toward work and mass education of the factual ration of job seekers to positions available do not change the principles of organization by which the economy operates.
Capital's Enslavement of Labour
As with all class societies the basic principle of operation in capitalism is slavery. To be sure, this is not the slavery of the politically stratified variety found in ancient regimes. But is slavery nonetheless on the basis that the individual is not in control of their life and that they must sell their labour in order to survive. It is forced, requisite, labour for the minority and not for a majority. There is no need here to engage in a detailed excursus or digression into debate with defenders of capitalist ideology who make the ludicrous claim that wages are a freely negotiated and mutually agreed values. It is self-evident that in capital-labour relations one of the participants requires wages in order to live and the other can simply seek more desperate individuals. It is also equally self-evident that it is in the interest and preference of the capitalist to employ labour at the lowest possible cost — the cost of maintaining the worker for the period of employment and no more — the "iron law of wages" as David Ricardo famously put it.
In the post-Second World War period however, a very different and perhaps unique set of circumstances arose. During 1948 and 1973 there was a period of unprecedented economic growth — worldwide gross national product increased by three and a half times. Keynesian economic theory with productive investment of liquid capital and demand management seemingly solved the problem of mass unemployment. Strong unions ensured that workers received a better than usual proportion of the earning from this economic growth. In this environment, a historic "class compromise" arose where, for the first time in capitalist history, the labouring class was deemed not guilty of their lack of inherited capital or their lack of ownership of common goods and natural resources. In advanced industrial economies, the "welfare state" was established, a system of economic democracy whereby all individuals were provided access to a social wage "from cradle to grave".
It is important to recognize however that a compromise is not a consensus, and a consensus is impossible between two parties that have contradictory interests. The temporary "class compromise" came under attack following the failure of Keynesian economics to deal with the OPEC oil crisis in the mid-1970s. This attack, monetarism, was clearly ideological in nature and actually contributed nothing to resolve the inherent contradictions in marginalist economic theory (as well pointed out in the latter works of Nicholas Kaldor). Viewed in this perspective, the attacks on the welfare-state and the introduction of work-for-the-dole schemes is simply a return to capitalism as usual; more unemployment as the ratio between constant capital and variable capital is reduced; and unemployment used to produce a downwards pressure on wages.
Surprisingly, opposition to this scheme in Australia seems to have neglected these fundamental facts. The main criticisms of the Australian Council of Social Services, the social-democratic Australian Labor Party and the Greens is purely functional — that the work-for-the-dole scheme fails the test of improving employment prospects and that it devalues voluntary community work. Even the radical Green Left Weekly, a newspaper controlled by members of the Democratic Socialist Party, advocates instead a reduction in working hours to distribute work more evenly — a good principle no doubt, and a point where anthropologists, occupational health and safety research and psychology agrees — and also an issue which individuals themselves can contribute. To put it simply, if you're working a five-day week, drop a day — it's good for your health, it reduces unemployment (every four people who do it generates one more job), your tax bill, and it acts as an upward pressure on wages.
Ending Fine-Tuning of Wage Slavery
Ultimately, however, such fine-tuning, as useful as it may be, neglects the fundamental problem. In a society stratified by economic classes, economic slavery will continue to exist even if the conditions for its abolition are possible. It is somewhat extraordinary that when viewing labour relations that conventional wisdom seems incapable of noting the existence of economic classes as the primary points of reference. Capital accumulation, through the telos of the economic system, tends toward centralization, just as wages, again through the telos of the system tend toward maintenance of the worker. Only through the democratic control and enhancement of social capital, and in particular natural resources, can these inclinations be avoided.
Marx's great claim for the "abolition of the wages system" never meant an abolition of wages as some nonsensical interpretations have suggested, just as it never meant an abolition of a price system for commodities. It meant the abolition of the conflicting social relationship between capital and labour and the establishment of "free communities of producers". It means a democratic control over the economy for (political and economic) democracy is the abolition of (political and economic) slavery.
Work-for-the-dole or community wages only makes sense if the principle of "mutual obligation" is taken seriously and decisions are genuinely freely chosen. Whilst private ownership of natural resources constitutes the greatest private expropriations from the species as a whole, the welfare system is but a partial reclamation. Funding the latter through the taxation of the former is increasingly just. One hundred years on, the economic theories of Henry George apparently finally are becoming not just a desire but a necessity. It is well about time that "lazy speculators," resource monopolists and other instances the "idle rich" were put to task; whilst it is true that the purpose of capital is to reduce the requirement of labour, it is equally true that unproductive capital must be put to work. Until that becomes a fact, the much-heralded system of "mutual obligation" is yet another lie to protect political and economic elites from the dispossessed.
Lev Lafayette is an IT consultant who recently served as the information technology policy advice to East Timor's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation. He has just completed his doctorate at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Melbourne, on a social theory of the Internet.