by Duncan Smith
Unemployment figures were up to 2.5 million by the end of March, and there’s no reason to think they won’t get any higher: some estimates put them as high as 3.3 million by the end of the year.
As well as rises in unemployment over the past few years, there have been increased attempts on the part of capital to project an image of criminality onto the unemployed, with high-level campaigns targeting “benefit thieves”. Such campaigns have the basic effect of portraying the unemployed as lazy, scrounging criminals, in what seems like a more-or-less conscious campaign to undermine solidarity on the part of the rest of the working class.
For those lucky enough not to hang around in JobCentres, here’s what you have to do to get your £64 a week (£100 if you’re married). At first it’s suprisingly relaxed: you go to reception, get waved through by two or three security guards, sit in a waiting area for ten minutes or so, before being called over to sign on and have a ‘chat’ with your advisor. You’ll have been expected to fill in a jobsearch booklet, detailing all your efforts to find work. Your advisor will glance at it, and then you’ll be free to go. I’ve been signing on for a while, and have never once had my jobsearch checked in any meaningful way. It can happen though, and if they find it ‘unsatisfactory’, or if you’ve failed to fill it in at all, then they can, and often do, stop your benefit for a fortnight.
Incidentally, the waiting areas can be great places to meet people. Last time I was signing, I got talking to someone. He was going off his head because they were going to stop his benefit, predictably enough because his jobsearch wasn’t ‘satisfactory ’. The guy was pretty ill, and on heavy medication. He was terrified of becoming homeless. He was 65 years old. I eavesdropped on his interview when he was eventually called over. They gave him a week’s grace, and they spoke to him like he was a five year old. A few years ago, he would have been on Disability Benefit, and would not have had to put with such harassment and condescension. But these days Disability Benefit is being phased out, and is almost impossible to get on.
When you’ve been signing on for three months things start getting to be a bit more serious. You’ll probably be put on “intensive signing”, which means you’ll have to sign on weekly instead of fortnightly, and your advisor will look a little more closely at your jobsearch.
At further ‘stages’ in the process – you move up a stage every three months – you’ll be given various ‘offers’. Training courses, most of which are absolutely useless and are run by private companies, A4e being the most notorious example. These companies have zero knowledge of the issues facing the long-term unemployed, and the services they offer are completely useless in terms of getting any meaningful work. And things are set to get a lot worse. From October sections of the unemployed in Greater Manchester will be forced to take part in the proposed Work for Your Benefits scheme, where they will have to do full-time work whilst remaining on benefit money. Of course, with the new government, this may well change – but it’s unlikely to change for the better.
All of this doesn’t seem to be much more than a punishment system for those who for whatever reason can’t get a job. Claimants are demoralised and patronised, and are certainly not offered any meaningful help. The training that you can do outside of the JobCentre system is severely limited by the cap that is placed on the number of hours you can do if you are not to lose your benefits. Voluntary work – which any sensible system would understand to be the best place to gain new skills – is limited to registered charities. In dark moments I almost think that ultimately the benefits system would like to force inactivity: if you’re not actively seeking work, you shouldn’t be doing anything at all.
Traditionally the unemployed have been used in capitalism as a reserve workforce, to instil fear and discipline into the working population. That’s starting to change: we are increasingly portrayed as a criminal class to be feared and despised, entirely separate from the working class proper. Sometime in the last five years the term usually used for people who fiddle their benefits was changed from ‘benefit cheat’ to ‘benefit thief’. The DWP website claims that “those who steal benefits are picking the pockets of law-abiding taxpayers. In 2008-9 benefit thieves stole an estimated £900 million from public funds, that’s why we are determined to catch them”. They don’t mention that there’s an estimated £10.5 billion saved in unclaimed benefits each year. Nor do they mention how reluctant the DWP are to explain precisely what benefits you are entitled to. And they certainly don’t have anything to say about that pack of benefit thieves in Buckingham Palace, who with the Civil List have their very own, very high class benefits system.
On the Benefit Thief section of the DWP website, alongside the usual drivel about “hidden cameras and mobile surveillance”, there is an online form for the enthusiastic Benefit Snitch to fill in. It is remarkably detailed: it wants to know the victim’s NI number, their height, the colour of their eyes. It would be pretty funny if it wasn’t ever so slightly sinister. Who are these snitches who know the colour of your eyes? Just like with terrorists, the honest taxpayer in expected to see benefit thieves everywhere, and to dob them in at every opportunity. Far from being a criminal class, the unemployed are actually a scapegoat class: one more example of capital’s vicious tendency to set up the most vulnerable people in the country – migrant workers, asylum seekers, the ill, the ‘insane’, the list goes on – as hate figures.
Since Thatcher, and even more so since Blair, it is always automatically assumed that the unemployed quite simply don’t want to work. Blair and Brown were always droning on about “benefit culture”, about how a “life on the dole” would soon be impossible. They never say anything that since the all-out attacks on the industrial base in the 1980s there are massive areas of the country where work is quite simply not there, or that most of the “job creation” they talk about is either meaningless or illusory. It is worth repeating: the jobs are not there. The only sane response would be to accept that full employment is an impossibility, and to then start coughing up a decent amount of benefit money. And ultimately, an all-out critique of the entire ideology of work is necessary: of course, these demands are totally incompatible with capitalism.
The dole is essentially one of the front-line zones of capital, where we come face to face with the seething contempt that it holds for us. But we’re not taking it lying down. One of the most exciting developments for the left over the last year has been the massive increase in Unemployed Workers’ Unions throughout the country: groups have formed in Cambridge, Salford, Oxford, Sheffield and London. The Cambridge offices of A4e were picketed in January, and in March, London Coalition Against Poverty, the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network and Feminist Fightback organised a week of action against the Welfare Reform Bill.
Claimants are only able to be scapegoated because the public don’t know what the conditions for the unemployed actually are. The new campaigns can challenge this, and will lead to greater solidarity has between the unemployed and the wider movement. False images of the unemployed have to be challenged at every opportunity. Most important of all, Work for your Benefits, or whatever version of it Cameron decides to throw at us, must be treated in the same way that we treated the Poll Tax. Resistance to capitalism is slowly but surely increasing in intensity: the unemployed have a key role to play in the struggle.