Wednesday, 28 May 2008

The Tory Attack on "Dependency Culture"

For all their liberal do-gooding posturing it didn't take the Tories long to start hitting the poor. First we have Boris Johnson cancelling the oil deal with Venezuela, depriving some 80,000 of the capital's poorest residents of cut price public transport use. And now we have Chris Grayling (pictured), the Work and Pensions shadow, proposing to attack under 21s on benefit by forcing them to work for it. Naturally, in keeping with the 'Tender Tory' image this is dressed up as tough love. Tony Blair used to like calling it 'compassion with a hard edge', but it all amounts to the same thing: if you go on the dole, you're going to have to work for it.

Grayling's proposals wax lyrical about the economic growth of London these last 10 years, but pauses to reflect on the unchanging levels of child poverty. As he puts it:

For the people that have not shared in the growth of the last 15 years, poverty and deprivation remain endemic. I've met some of those people, trapped in a cycle of worklessness. They are often personable and likeable. But they are also a mile away from the job market - lacking experience, self-confidence, the basic know-how about how to get and hold down a job.
This situation is the responsibility of none other than Gordon Brown. For Grayling, New Labour have relied on migrant workers to fuel the economic growth rates rather than tackle the issue of welfare reform. It is the government's failure to do so that has trapped millions into generational cycles of poverty. That's right, in the Tory variant of neoliberal orthodoxy, the welfare state creates deprivation rather than tackles it.

This shouldn't be too surprising. A central trope flagged up time and again by the right is the notion of 'dependency culture'. It would have us believe benefits promote a climate of entitlement whereby some layers of the working class - especially the young - expect the welfare state will provide for them without ever having to work. This is the spirit animating Grayling's proposals and the very strong implication is this is why an estimated five million Britons are financially dependent on benefits. Therefore tackling unemployment isn't concerned with creating jobs because the market will miraculously supply the requisite number. Instead, the experience of being unemployed as to be as unattractive and unpleasant as possible. Under the Tories then, 18-21 year olds could look forward to:

- Intensive programmes of work-related activity for those who don't find a job within three months.

- Full-time community work programmes for those who spend a year out of work.

- Tougher limits on the amount of time young people can spend at home on benefits.

Mixed in with all this is renaming the dole office 'back to work centres' along with the promise of employment 'boot camps'. Surely it's only a matter of time before the work house makes its reappearance?

Leaving aside the gross inhumanity of the proposals, I'd like to take a look at this idea of dependency culture. Firstly, blaming the unemployed for being unemployed is incredibly stupid. Unemployment is a structural characteristic of all capitalist societies. It predates the rise of state-financed welfare provision and continues to be endemic in societies where unemployment benefit ranges from the meagre to the non-existent. Secondly in Britain the dole was easier to obtain in most of the post-war period than it is today, in a period where unemployment was nowhere near the scale of what Thatcher and her successors have presided over. Simply put, welfare does not encourage joblessness, it does not generate cultures of dependency.

That said for all the ideological hay neoliberals make of dependency culture, there is a rational kernal inside the mystifying shell. There are many working class communities effectively thrown on the scrap heap after their big employers have either moved or closed. There are pockets of persistent long term unemployment. Take Stoke for example, in Bentilee - one of the local BNP strongholds - about half of the ward's residents do not work. If we are serious about solving these problems we have to understand why joblessness remains high, even when new industries have come in to the area. Only then can effective strategies can be developed.

Such an investigation has been carried out by Valerie Walkerdine in an ESRC-funded project. She was at Birmingham University presenting her findings in a paper titled Masculinity, Femininity and Shame in the South Wales Valleys. The anonymous town she looked at saw its steel works closed in 2002 and very little coming in to fill the void. Six years on the unemployment visited on the community has persisted and crossed the generational divide. Unskilled young men who left school without qualifications have inherited the joblessness of their fathers. Why?

For Walkerdine, it is not just a question of a lack of opportunity. The loss of work impacted heavily on the community's cultural infrastructure, and particularly how gender relations are constituted. Being a steel worker required a certain toughness, resilience and strength. As jobs they unpleasant and occasionally dangerous but it allowed for a certain kind of working class masculine identity, where the nature of the work, the all-male workplace camaraderie and the relatively high wages ticked all the manly boxes. A steel worker was strong. A steel worker provided for his family. But take that work away and these gender dynamics are thrown into crisis. For many workers, they went from bread winner to house husband. As they lost their jobs their spouses and partners had to take on work. Women went from nurturers to providers while the men were 'feminised' by their unemployment. They became the dependents.

Young men were affected by this fluctuating climate. From the standpoint of a masculinity defined in terms of steel working there is a severe cultural clash between steel and new jobs. Whereas young men could leave school with no qualifications in the 1980s and still find a sort of male dignity at the mill, no such pride exists among service industries. These had previously been coded as 'women's jobs' and took place in what had hitherto been marked as feminine spaces. The 'nurturing' nature of service work, compulsory uniforms, the subjection to micromanagement and the emasculation of trade unionism were a world away from 'men's work'. Young men reported a perceived sense of shame if they ended up working as shelf stackers, checkout operators and trolley attendants down their local Tesco. It was a shame enforced by their peers and their families. Despite the fact their fathers were out of work there was still an expectation young men adhered to received masculine codes. Older men could draw consolation from having once 'been a man'. Younger men could not. Therefore, rather than being seen to trade their masculinity in for a wage, they can escape humiliation by refusing to work. In other words, a culture of shame fuelled persistent unemployment, not welfare dependency.

If the Tories get the chance to implement their policies, the issues sustaining long term unemployment will go unaddressed. Using Walkerdine's findings, one can surmise that forcing young men into 'feminising' work on pain of losing benefits will create all kinds of problems. There will be resistance to it, but this resistance is more likely to assume pathological, individualised forms in the absence of an upsurge in class struggle. Crime is a route out for some. For others, drink or drug dependency offers an escape. Others will prefer to sign off and fall back on family support, which will lead to more conflict and pressures in the very institution the Tories claim to champion. And forcing young men on to community work programmes is more likely to alienate rather than engender any kind of local community spirit.

How then to reintegrate this layer of working class men back into the labour force? Walkerdine said the findings would be taken back to the local council to inform its youth workers and develop a localised strategy. But as far as I can see this is only part of the solution. We need a radical overhaul of the welfare state tied to a programme that aimed at changing workplace relations themselves. This is not simply a case of demanding more benefits and higher wages, though this has its part to play. The bottom line is the empowerment of our class vis a vis the state and the bosses. It was the left (albeit the New Left) who pioneered the critique of the disempowering and atomising effects of welfare, but as welfare came under attack from the late 70s onwards the left's criticisms were subsumed by the need to defend existing provisions. This effectively ceded the language of empowerment to the neoliberals of the centre and the right. But as experience has taught us their 'a hand up, not a hand out' rhetoric has been a cover for dismantling provision and the institution of workfare measures.

The left needs to reclaim this language.

4 comments:

Jerry S said...

"Firstly, blaming the unemployed for being unemployed is incredibly stupid. Unemployment is a structural characteristic of all capitalist societies. It predates the rise of state-financed welfare provision and continues to be endemic in societies where unemployment benefit ranges from the meagre to the non-existent. Secondly in Britain the dole was easier to obtain in most of the post-war period than it is today, in a period where unemployment was nowhere near the scale of what Thatcher and her successors have presided over. Simply put, welfare does not encourage joblessness, it does not generate cultures of dependency."

That is a terribly bad argument.

Phil BC said...

Perhaps you'd care to suggest a counter argument, one that has something stronger than ideological assumptions to back it up?

Respectable Citizen said...

This is a very interesting post, the idea of the 'culture of dependency' is a key feature of the governments welfare reform, but I was wondering if you could expand on your conclusions:

" The bottom line is the empowerment of our class vis a vis the state and the bosses. It was the left (albeit the New Left) who pioneered the critique of the disempowering and atomising effects of welfare, but as welfare came under attack from the late 70s onwards the left's criticisms were subsumed by the need to defend existing provisions. This effectively ceded the language of empowerment to the neoliberals of the centre and the right. But as experience has taught us their 'a hand up, not a hand out' rhetoric has been a cover for dismantling provision and the institution of workfare measures.

The left needs to reclaim this language."

What concrete measures do you think can be taken to empower our class and shift workplace relations?

Phil BC said...

Hi there Respectable - good job I was idly clicking through the archive otherwise I wouldn't have noticed your comment!

It's easy to offer soundbites around workers control and what have you, but we're very far from such a situation today. I would say the immediate answer lies in the trade unions. Joined up workplace-focused organising seems the way to go, so that each union branch has a recruitment and organising strategy in place for every workplace it covers is a starting point - but again easier said than done when its difficult to accumulate trade union activists. But it's not an insurmountable obstacle. When a union has a leadership prepared to fight, such as the RMT, PCS, POA and FBU, this can help overcome the inertia at the base.

Aside from that, I have a handy shopping list of demands that could help shift the balance of power too. But the chances of them being instituted in the absence of a mass struggle for them are absolutely zilch.