You are here

Welfare, Workfare, Alienation: Early Marx and Late Capitalism

This essay examines the new work requirements and the expansion of the "workfare" program resulting from the 1996 legislation as cases of alienated labor.

Nora Connor

Issue #53, January 2001

In 1996 Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), making good on President Clinton's campaign promises to "end welfare as we know it." The changes brought about by this legislation are significant. This essay examines the new work requirements and the expansion of the "workfare" program resulting from the 1996 legislation as cases of alienated labor. After a description of the new rules of welfare and of some of the work that is performed under these rules, we move on to look at the concept of alienated labor itself. Some of the questions asked include, what aspects of Marx's extensive theory are most useful for understanding the welfare reform-labor connection? How are the concepts of labor, production and commodity different for the contemporary example than for those examples Marx used? And, are there elements of the welfare/workfare situation that can't be adequately critiqued as "alienated labor"?

Welfare Reform and Labor Markets circa 1996

The centerpiece of welfare reform is the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant. The 1996 act abolished the open-ended AFDC entitlement. TANF will give states $16.38 billion per year from 1997 to 2003 to operate time-limited cash assistance for needy families, coupled with work requirements for nearly all adult recipients. States have broad discretion to decide eligibility and benefit levels; to operate new Food Stamp and employment and training programs; and to devolve welfare duties to local governments and private agencies. Congress also enacted the Welfare-to-Work program in 1997 to supply $1.5 billion to states and localities in both 1998 and 1999 to help them meet TANF's work targets.

States can set their own time limits for both receiving benefits and finding work. Some states have capped eligibility for cash assistance at as low as 21 months; after this period of time the recipient is permanently cut off from aid. The federally mandated limit for cash assistance is 60 months cumulative time. States must meet federal guidelines for reducing their caseloads or face cuts in their block grants, raising the impetus to focus solely on kicking and keeping people off the welfare rolls, with little regard for what happens to them after they leave (although the stated goal, of course, is to help transition welfare recipients out of poverty and dependence). The block grant format also opens the way for increased privatization of the "poverty industry" services that go along with welfare reform — everything from record keeping and case management to job recruiting and counseling — leading states to farm out responsibility for delivery of key services to their most vulnerable citizens to such socially conscious privateers as Lockheed-Martin and Electronic Data Systems.

The latest round of welfare reform begs plenty of criticism from a variety of perspectives, on both the practical and philosophical level, and indeed the debate over the welfare state, its role and meaning has been raging for decades. But the engine of the 1996-1997 rounds of reform is unmistakable no matter where one is camped out in the political discourse, and that engine is work. The newest revisions place a disproportionate emphasis on waged labor. In order to continue receiving aid, even under the new time limits, the recipient must find work, or show that steps have been taken to try to find a job, nearly immediately. In cases where appropriate work cannot be found, some recipients are placed in unpaid positions with public agencies. Called "workfare," this innovation results in poor people, usually women, performing essentially free labor for the state in return for the "privilege" of cash assistance benefits that usually amount to less than $600 per month in many cases amounting to well under the minimum wage.

Workfare has also caused the displacement of thousands of higher-paid, unionized city and state employees as public agencies phase out or cut full-time jobs and replace them with workfare participants. New York City is one well-documented example of the displacement of city employees. Beginning in 1998 the New York Times reported that as many as 34,100 workfare participants were doing "much of the grunt work that makes city government run" and that they had taken over "a substantial amount of the work that had been done by municipal employees before Mayor Giuliani reduced the city payroll by about 20,000 employees, or about ten percent." As an example, the article cited one cleaning woman in the city's Health Department who was working 24 hours per week and receiving not wages but Medicaid coverage and a $124 welfare check every two weeks. The Times found the same pattern for maintenance workers at the city courts and the Department of Housing. The Parks Department has cut its non-administrative staff by over 40 percent under Giuliani, replacing about 900 full-time waged workers with over 6,000 workfare participants. It is hard not to conclude from this pattern that the welfare recipients themselves, along with the work that they do, are simply worth less to the city than their counterparts who may have arrived at their waged or salaried jobs in a more traditional manner.

If welfare reform and workfare represent both a literal and cultural devaluation of workers and of work, they also have a certain expediency about them. Workfare aside, the work requirements of the PRWORA amount to a legal coercion to work for wages. The great majority of welfare recipients are single women raising children, meaning that the demographic to which this coercion is applied consists largely of poor mothers, forcing them to work outside the home. When juxtaposed with common rhetorical laments about the decreasing amounts of time parents spend with their children and the pressures bearing on households in which both parents must work, these measures seem suspiciously punitive. Why are women in dual-earner households (whose middle- or upper-class and married status provides the luxury of choosing) praised for voluntarily leaving the labor force to stay at home with children, while the law forces poor single women in the opposite direction? The answers to this question are complex, but certain conditions specific to today's economy make space for this seeming contradiction. The low-wage or "service" sector is the fastest growing element of the US economy; it is also presently experiencing an unprecedented labor shortage. By reducing federal entitlements and shoving welfare recipients into the labor market, welfare reform provides "emergency assistance" on the supply side of the low wage labor market by rounding up a sizable population of near-desperate workers who must accept any type of work under any conditions. If the economy and its labor markets contract, workfare will maintain a remnant of the mechanism and prolong its rationale, should the need for these workers in the private sector arise again.

Welfare Workers as Alienated Laborers

The idea of the alienation of labor cements the Marxian system. It is a comprehensive scheme, but two elements of Marx's theory of alienation stand out as key to an understanding of welfare reform. The first is alienation through the very act of selling one's labor. Marx theorized that in the very act of selling one's labor, one is estranging oneself from oneself, as work "for another" is not a natural or desired activity. It is instead born of necessity, because the laborer has nothing else to sell in order to make a living. The realization that one's self, one's time and energy, are simply another object or commodity that in fact must be sold, forces one to see oneself as an object and thus results in alienation. The second aspect of Marx's idea of "alienated labor" that is important to consider here is the process of alienation through the production of commodities, which Marx saw as the aim of labor. The alienation of labor is made complete by the fact of the thing that is produced, the commodity, and the laborer's relation to it. The worker is confronted, in the aspect of her productive capacities, by the foreign object that she has made for another ("whatever the product of his labor is, he is not") under the condition of necessity. Whatever that thing may be, it retains the power that the laborer invested in its creation, while the creator, the worker, has lost that power. It is as if the worker had lost a bit of himself or herself in the object being produced. Marx described the effect of having to stand in relation to the foreign products of one's organic effort as "the weight of dead labor oppressing the living laborer," because the worker's own power remains, but in a foreign, inaccessible sense.

maid Marx, in describing the alienation that comes with the act of selling one's labor, arrived at a unique characterization of labor itself: that in order to sell his or her labor as a commodity, a person must be in the free and sole possession of it. As is the case with prison or captive labor, workfare and welfare-to-work laws demonstrate just how far this formulation can be stretched. One is free and in self-possession in the sense that one always has the final right of refusal to perform any work, although the alternative might be physical reprisals or the summary removal of all means of subsistence. The welfare recipient pressed into finding waged labor under duress, in total disregard for the barriers to doing so (lack of access to reliable child care, low earning potential or education, problems with domestic violence or substance abuse, etc) does not have to wait to be confronted with a commodity of her own production to feel the weight of dead labor oppressing her living, laboring self. The "choice" of taking workfare or a minimum wage job that will not even recoup the extra costs in incurs in transportation and child care can never be a "free" one, not in the way that we like to imagine freedom. The scarcity of good options for someone in this position, along with the not so subtle messages of denigration conveyed by systems like workfare, are themselves forms of alienation that stand outside of the moment of production.

Welfare reform and especially workfare reveal something about how our particular capitalist society values those who fall into the social and economic categories of welfare. They show plainly that these people exist, and may exist, only in so far as they work. Peter Linebaugh, historian of the British working class, noted that the beginnings of industrial capitalism in that country involved a "cleaning up" of the strong and idle vagabond and beggar types, sending them to work in factories or toil in the colonies. Here again, with welfare reform, no one can be allowed to be strong, to be able to work, and yet to remain idle, unless, of course, they happen to be wealthy. No woman may choose to be relatively poor and to favor a life without work, perhaps to devote the majority of time to caring for her children. Where this sort of principle leaves off as ideology and begins as economics, or vice versa, is another question-one that this discussion will touch on in the final section of this essay.

What Does "Production" Mean in a Service Economy?

"Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity and does so in the proportion in which it produces commodities generally."
— Marx, "Alienated Labor"

How is the alienation different when a worker is "producing" in the sense of "serving," where the commodity facing down the laborer is not some inanimate product but another human being, the recipient or purchaser of that labor? Here is one way in which today's capitalism differs from the "wild early capitalism" of Marx's time or of the early decades of the 20th century, although some contemporary analysts like to draw parallels based on the current trends of globalization. Service, from retail to telecom to hotels and home health-care, is the sector toward which welfare recipients are overwhelmingly directed. These jobs are the enabling component of today's consumer society, and they are among the lowest paying. This is not "production" in the classical sense. Marx wrote that "the alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object but that it exists outside of him, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power of its own confronting him." Marx's ideas about labor are easy to visualize in the context of the factory, reinforced in our imaginations by his famous notion of the fetishism of commodities.

Even as a kid I can remember looking at the words "made in somewhere" on the bottom of my toys or radios or the label stitched into my shoes and realizing that this stuff had been made by a real person, or people, way out in "somewhere." Working in a factory as a teenager, packing box after numbing box of, well, product, I could always sense that there was a somebody who would pick it up off the shelf in a faraway Wal-Mart. From either side of the commodity transaction, it can be felt that something of the worker disappears, is assimilated or rendered trivial, but at the same time the commodity itself remains as a kind of mystery or a reminder carrying the traces of its inception. Retaining the power stolen inevitably from its creators, but hinting at their existence all the while-at least for those consumers willing to take the hint.

If alienation for Marx appears as the loss of ones self in the object (commodity), and if the commodity gains powers as the laborer loses them, it is the consumer in the service economy whose power grows in relation to the worker. "The more civilized his object, the more barbarous the worker," Marx wrote. In this type of commodity transaction, the producer may well remain present and visible to the consumer throughout the act, but it is in this context that the worker truly disappears — when the commodity is the creation of luxury or the facilitation of business or the assistance with basic functions such as eating or bathing, for another. A few years ago the management of a Boston hotel, in what they insisted was a customer-oriented attempt to provide more meticulous housekeeping, took the mops away from their maids and insisted that they scrub the requisite 20-odd bathrooms a day by hand, on their knees. When asked by a member of the local media if this measure was not a touch atavistic? The owner of the hotel replied that on the contrary, "these women are maids, and that's just what maids do." In the quote from Alienated Labor that begins this section, Marx asserts that in producing commodities, labor produces itself as a commodity; it objectifies itself. This also seems to imply a reciprocal construction of identity between the commodity and the laborer-that the identity of the labor that "produces itself" as it produces commodities is informed by the nature of the commodity produced. Carole Pateman pointed out that "service," even if it is waged and done in a workplace, is still done by "servants."

"Production" and the Undervaluation of Service and Caring Work

This discussion of welfare reform and the "service" sector may be starting to sound familiar. It has touched on the state and labor markets, on crappy low-paid and low-respected jobs, and on women and poverty. Feminists, Marxist feminists, feminist Marxists and lots of other thinkers have for years been pointing out the degrading, underpaid characteristics of this type of labor, to which women have historically been consigned both in and out of the house. The "Wages for Housework" movement of the 1970s articulated the idea that housework and the work of caring for a waged worker and children is in fact a key productive element in the capitalist system, and raised the demand for wages for this sort of work. Led by Italy's Mariarosa Dalla Costa, and advancing the logic that caring or household work is oppressive because it is unpaid, these activists argued that compensation would improve the social standing of women.

I would argue from a consideration of women's paid work at present that moving "women's work" out of the home and into the world of waged labor has not resulted in improvement in standing, for many women. Certainly this is at least partially due to the fact that women as workers have been accorded low economic value thanks in part to their performance of unwaged labor in the home (precisely as those who advocate for an economic recognition of this work argue), and by association in the labor market the work that "women do" has suffered a similar valuation. This is one of the reasons that critics such as Dalla Costa insist that recognizing labor in the home would pave the way for the economic advances in the traditional workplace of women and of men who work in industries commonly thought of as female-dominated.

Yet the terms of this debate, taken strictly from Marx, cannot move beyond a certain critical point. Angela Davis saw the analysis of the home (and the unpaid, unrecognized labor that takes place there) as the secret key element in capitalist production as too narrowly conceived. She asked in Women, Race and Class, "Does it automatically follow that women in general can be fundamentally defined by their domestic functions? Does it automatically follow that the housewife is actually a secret worker inside the capitalist production process?" Davis cites examples of capitalist societies in which the family unit has been destroyed as the necessary condition for labor and production, the two major examples being slavery in the US and apartheid in South Africa. Intellectual and activist movements like "wages for housework" make use of one of Marx's major ideas about labor, which he discusses in Alienated Labor and in parts of Capital as well: the idea that labor itself, sold as a commodity, has a market value or price, and that that price has factored into it the cost of sustaining the worker and replacing him once he wears out (ie, by sustaining his children, who will grow up to become workers). Davis' counterexamples show that labor under capitalism does not necessarily command the price of its own survival, at least in the sense of "making a living." Marx himself recognized this contradiction at some points, although he continued to give priority to the idea that labor's market value must be at least the price of sustaining the laborer. He acknowledged that in fact the existence of a readily exploitable mass of bodies for labor is a necessary condition for capitalist production. Laborers and the cost of their maintenance are not in fact an element within the cycle of production, or another of its "raw materials," as the story often goes. They are simply its cannon fodder. Marx wrote in Capital, "the labor required to produce horses and machines is an accurately known quantity, while that required to maintain the women of the surplus population is below all calculation."

In this less widely observed aspect of the relation between capital and labor, it is clear that labor is a very cheap commodity indeed, and that it is even seen as a commodity to which capital has some kind of inherent claim to securing. With welfare reform and workfare, this kind of devaluation can be seen again, albeit in a form less grim than in Davis' examples of slavery and apartheid. Under the coercions of the new welfare laws, labor is pumped into the economy, but at such a value and under such conditions that it cannot hope to maintain itself-in other words, low-wage jobs and workfare may not ultimately be able provide even subsistence for those it is supposedly helping to transition to self sufficiency. Yet the supply must somehow be made constant. In the cases to which Angela Davis refers, like slavery or apartheid, the supply of labor was maintained at well below the cost of "wages" by a brutal political and punitive system, relying even upon rape and forced reproduction outside of any "family" context. In the current situation we are faced with an additional complexity. The low-wage labor markets may be tight, but the privatization of the poverty industry has created an additional type of demand from a group of capitalists whose enterprises require a continual supply of impoverished "customers" in order to remain profitable. Those receiving welfare or participating in workfare, then, occupy a double role: they are conscripted bodies for the both the service industries' labor markets and for the poverty industry's poverty markets. If, as we've been seeing, a worker or a family cannot survive on the income provided by these programs and jobs, the only mechanism capable of sustaining the current arrangement is a rapid and expanding divide in the distribution of social and economic wealth, with more and more people becoming impoverished enough to occupy this special place in our society.

And More Limits

There is another significant limit to any discussion of unwaged or underwaged labor, welfare-to-work or workfare, as "alienated labor" in the Marxian sense. In contrast to strictly materialist critiques of poverty or of problems with women's work (such as Wages for Housework) stands a more comprehensive economic justice approach, where the conversation expands to include the notion of "guaranteed income" for all as a human right, the right to existence in fact. Sometimes this is phrased as a demand for "living wages," sometimes as a defense of the welfare state, and sometimes simply as the right to income. This approach moves the debate beyond the terms of capitalist production, beyond the work-facts that some jobs pay so little that one can have two of them, work more than full time, and still be unable to live, or that caring and service work are worth something, and that the valuation of this work needs to change. It opens the way for considering the importance of people as such.

There is a second major element of the limits of "alienated labor" when it comes to thinking about the disappearance of the welfare state and about unwaged, low-waged or service work. Perhaps the heavily materialist legacy of Marx, for all the imaginative capacity of his ideas, cannot tell the whole story here. In the case welfare and workfare, it is clear from the racism, fear and distortion directed against "welfare mothers" in the popular discourse that the relations of production cannot possibly explain the various "alienations" or oppression experienced by (for this discussion) the women who find themselves in these positions. Angela Davis' critique of the "wages for housework" reading of Marx had an additional facet to the one we previously examined: she points out that the logical arguments of "wages for housework" are drawn exclusively from examples of comparatively wealthier families with the characteristics prevalent in white social contexts. She demonstrates that a feminist interpretation of Marxism, even one based on seemingly inarguable economic or material facts, is susceptible to the prejudices of race and class. As thinkers like Davis and Pateman (along with Michel Foucault, Sandra Bartky and many others) have shown, "power" is not simply about capital, or about money. A huge body of work has been done extending concepts like "alienation" and "labor" into other modes of social relations, and it is in this way that Marx's original vision has been extended.

The problematic elements, limits, of alienated labor and of Marx's treatment of labor as a whole will become apparent with regard to the experience of work by any human being, not just women or impoverished women or welfare mothers. As Jean Baudrillard famously complained, Marx may have been able to demystify the liberal usage of "labor," but he still "imposed it on the working classes as their critical means of self-comprehension." In developing a systematic and deeply insightful critique of labor, in trying to insist that labor as we know it usurps a more compelling and meaningful aspect of ourselves, he ended up elevating labor, and the human capacity for a mysterious "production," to the central aspect of human existence, and as the sole reference points for reality. Work isn't everything, after all, or at least it shouldn't be everything.

Nora Connor also contributed a piece to our "Fear" issue (our fiftieth) last year.

Copyright © 2001 by Nora Connor. Image found and recontextualized by Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.