the ‘social wage’ and the hackney nurseries campaign

Camille Barbagallo and Nic Beuret look at the role of public services and how the cuts axe is falling

Childcare services in the UK are under attack. Childcare services across the country are being defunded, abolished and downgraded. In this article we start with the specific cuts in Hackney to nursery places and analyse these cuts in the context of the gendered nature of the ConDem’s austerity budget. We explore both what enables these cuts to happen now and what their effects will be and conclude with some reflections on possible paths of resistance within the current crisis of care.

Let’s be honest – the public services that are being cut include things that we need, but we hate how they are given to us: like unemployment benefits. They also involve jobs that we rely on but resent having to do. But what is also true is that they are part of a ‘social wage’ fought for and won by pervious generations.

By ‘social wage’ we mean the services and direct payments provided by the state that enable our subsistence. The health services, childcare, unemployment benefits, social housing – they are our social wage. The social wage has a dual effect. It operates as a method of discipline and control and also as a means of reducing the direct cost (to us) of our own material reproduction. Instead of paying the ‘full’ cost for childcare out of our wages, we get subsidised or ‘free’ childcare. Instead of paying directly for health services, such services are funded by taxation and provided by the NHS. Instead of having to put aside money in case we are sacked, we get the dole.

The social wage is also a way of ‘paying the unpaid’. The primary focus of the social wage is social reproduction and involves labour that would otherwise be unwaged. This has historically been known as ‘women’s work’ such as caring for children, the elderly, the sick and disabled, the health of the body and emotional and psychological services such as counselling, etc. The social wage is a way of redistributing income so as to benefit those people whose (unwaged) labour is fundamental and vital for the reproduction of workers and capitalism in general.

None of this is to say that the social wage is unproblematic. Obviously it is – under capitalism wage relations are based on exploitation and alienation, and the various elements of the social wage are no exception. We need the services because we have no other choice. This relates to the double freedom that Marx talks about as the precondition of wage labour. Like other wage struggles, the ultimate aim must be to go beyond the immediate relation and create a new social relationship. But we can’t do this by opting out. Not only because dropping out and making our own little utopias does not get us any closer to the necessary transformation of the world in which we live, but because the social wage represents real struggles and gains. We need to be in, against and beyond the social wage.

The Hackney situation

Hackney’s nurseries are under attack ironically not because of the ConDem’s budget, but because the Learning Trust, a private company that controls the funding for children’s services in Hackney, arbitrarily cut nursery funding in April 2010. Friends of Hackney Nurseries (FHN), a coalition of nursery workers, parents and community activists that we are members of, has been fighting to stop these cuts with some success.

The Hackney Learning Trust – the UK’s first private not-for profit company to take over the responsibility of running all education services for an entire borough – imposed cuts of up to £50,000 to nurseries receiving commissioning grants. Commissioning grants subsidise childcare places for parents on low incomes. Commissioning grants have, until recently, only been paid to the 13 remaining community nurseries in Hackney, out of 68 childcare ‘settings’ in Hackney. These 68 include Council-run children’s centres, community nurseries (not-for-profit parent and staff managed nurseries) and private nurseries (private nurseries make up half of the total childcare places). As a result of the massive cuts to commissioning grant funding and cuts to other funding streams, many community nurseries are reducing both staff numbers and childcare places. Some are even facing closure because of it.

Both the Council and the Learning Trust have, after much public pressure, claimed that the overall pot of money for low-income families in Hackney has not been cut – it has just been redistributed. They have resisted providing evidence of this, and the timeline of action then reaction tells another story – one of incompetence and a slow but steady strategy of privatisation.

When nurseries were first told of the cuts (one month before they were to be implemented), FHN quickly reformed after 10 years of inactivity and immediately set about working with parents and nurseries to put pressure on the Council and Learning Trust to reverse the cuts. This all happened just prior to the general elections this year, making public shaming particularly effective as a tactic. In short order the Mayor of Hackney, Jules Pipe, condemned the Learning Trust’s behaviour and the Learning Trust scrambled to meet with the handful of nurseries that had started to publicly voice their opposition.

Despite saying publicly that the money had not been cut but redistributed, in the end the Learning Trust reversed half of the cuts largely through something they called a ‘cushioning fund’ – a one off grant to help the affected nurseries through the hardship of the cuts. They didn’t say where this extra money had been found.

After this shambles, things got even more interesting. Meetings between nurseries and the Learning Trust were set up then cancelled without explanation. Different letters were sent, seemingly at random, to different nurseries all saying slightly different things. The Learning Trust started contacting community nurseries to offer them help in winding down their operations. During the weeks of confusion and misinformation the Learning Trust announced that commissioning grants would now be available to all nurseries in Hackney, further reducing the amount available to community nurseries (due to increased competition with the private nurseries).

What does all this mean? It would seem that the redistribution of funding from community nurseries to private nurseries is part of the last stages of the privatisation of childcare services.

Over the last 20 years the total amount of money given to community nurseries has steadily reduced. At the same time there has been an explosion of private nurseries in Hackney. Ten years ago there were no private nursery spaces in Hackney. Now, around half of all childcare places are privately provided.

Why does privatisation of childcare matter?

It could be argued, as it has been by many Hackney Councillors, that it doesn’t matter if childcare is provided by the Council, by community-run centres, or by private businesses. So as long as the total number of childcare places in Hackney hasn’t been reduced, does it really matter on what basis they are provided?

The short answer is yes. The case against privatisation can be summed up as follows. A service run according to the logic of the market tends to drive down costs (and therefore quality), reduce staff and employment conditions to the absolute minimum (reducing wages and reducing the quality of the childcare again), increase the costs to the service user (through fee increases) and reduce provision to those areas where it’s profitable (creating a system where having a service and the quality of that service directly relate to how much you earn). There is also the issue of directing public funds (via grants) to private-for-profit businesses. Any one of these outcomes are reason enough to reject the privatisation of community or public services.

But the flip side is that state-run services are also deeply problematic. They provide us with services we need but in relationships of subservience or dependence. It is no wonder that state-run services are so unpopular, with most of the population of the UK preferring service cuts to tax increases. While the services we have are a direct result of the pressure we have been able exert as antagonistic social movements, this pressure has been channelled into the creation of services that follow the logic of the state and serve the needs of capitalism. Our confrontation with capital is over the imposition of waged labour and the form this labour takes. But our struggle with the state is over the overall management of our lives; in particular, the management of our own material reproduction.

Cuts to services are not a removal of the state’s management of our lives, just a reconfiguration. With the move from community-run childcare to either Council or private childcare we lose something essential – control. The only childcare services parents have any control over in a meaningful way are community nurseries. Committees of parents and staff manage them, and parents are encouraged to be involved at a decision-making and organisation level. In contrast Council appointed staff manage Council nurseries and private nurseries may ‘involve’ parents but they usually do so in order to reduce their costs. Privatisation undermines one of our most important gains from the struggles of the 60s and 70s – community services that we manage for our own material reproduction but that have financial resources provided by the state. This is why the slow decline of funding and the latest attack on community nurseries is so important. They are the last of the childcare services we have any control over in Hackney.

Outside the laboratory

Hackney has always been something of a laboratory for New Labour, and the Learning Trust is a perfect case in point. However it is not just in Hackney these cuts are taking place. Across the UK, at a borough level and at a University level, childcare services are facing declining funding and further cuts. At least 20 universities are cutting childcare services, many other Councils are cutting provision, rents are being increased and central Government is looking to cut funding streams.

As other observers have pointed out, the difference between New Labour and the ConDems is a difference of degree. It is clear that had New Labour won the election they too would be embarking on cuts to the social wage. In fact the cuts in Hackney were announced prior to any central Government cuts, and are taking place as part of a broader historical tendency – neo-liberalism.

Clearly these cuts need to be stopped, and sufficient funding restored in the short term. In the longer term there needs to be a conversation at both a community level and a national level about how we want our children to be cared for, outside of the logic of the market and beyond just making it possible for women to re-enter the workforce in greater numbers. Before we can begin this conversation, we need to understand why these cuts are happening now, and what they mean.

Cuts to public services are not just about reducing state expenditure on the social wage but also about regulating the labour market and producing a specific kind of subjectivity. The current economic crisis is being used to continue the social project of neo-liberalism, even as the engine of capitalist growth, the financial sector falters. The neo-liberal project has developed along two axes – winding back the social wage and introducing the market as the basis for all social relations.

However the difference between the current cuts in the UK and the earlier phases of neo-liberalism both here and elsewhere around the globe is twofold. Firstly, capitalism has no need to increase the labour force in the UK – if anything, the total numbers available for paid work needs to be reduced to make sure that the numbers of unemployed do not grow excessively and that an entire generation of workers are not lost. Secondly, there is a need to ensure that there is not a reproductive crisis in the working class (this is expressed by Cameron as the desire to ‘fix Broken Britain’). The government needs to find a way to reduce state expenditure on the social wage without significantly undermining the continuity of care and continued reproduction of the working class.

The post-feminist discourse of ‘free-market’ feminists, ‘liberal’ feminists and the all of the major political parties enters into this crisis as an organising ideological force. It is through the discourse of ‘choice’ that women are being encouraged to either move away from waged labour and back to the home or resume the gendered ‘second shift’ of unpaid work in the home as well as working outside the home for wages. The return to the home is not only being proposed to women– men too, but only as long as their partners earn more than they do. The idea that life decisions are rationale choices made on a cost-benefit analysis pervades current responses to both the paucity of care, the disparity between men and women’s wages and an ever-present desire to escape waged labour.

It’s through the discourse of choice that the state can withdraw funding from services without endangering social reproduction or provoking confrontation. The choice of love, family and community over money and careers is at the heart of post-feminist discourse. It is also at the heart of Cameron’s Big Society. This ‘choice’ takes place within the context of a massive economic and political assault on women. According to the Fawcett Society, 72% of cuts from income due to tax and social security changes will fall upon women. They make up the overwhelming majority of part time workers in the public service and are the first to face redundancy. They are also far more likely to be the beneficiaries of social services. The reality is that the latest cuts are overwhelming directed at women. So the ‘rational choice’ ends up being not a choice at all but instead a necessity to return to the home to perform unpaid reproductive labour.

The aim of the Big Society is to reduce the social wage, and to return social reproduction to the realm of the unpaid. It is also an attempt to change historical expectations – not a return to the fifties, but the creation of a voluntaristic morality that serves the same function of relocating people (women for the most part) back into the home to perform unpaid labour. The rational choice of generally lower paid women moving back to the home to perform unwaged labour also reinvigorates traditional gender relations with a neo-liberal logic of rational choice.

In, against and beyond the social wage

Among the demands for childcare in the 60s and 70s was the demand for community run and controlled nurseries. Feminists who struggled over questions of childcare and campaigned for community control of nurseries won this demand with varying degrees of success. To be sure, these nurseries have their problems. Like much of the labour involved in providing social services, looking after children is demanding, underpaid and undervalued. People’s capacity to care and love is relied upon and it often means people accept conditions they might not otherwise. To begin to navigate a path of resistance out of the current crisis, we need to return to the question of what kind of reproduction we want.

For the nursery campaign in Hackney, this will mean reinvigorating the community nursery sector. Community nurseries need to not just be defended but expanded, with the state footing the bill. The question of work needs be at the centre of our struggles – waged and unwaged, concerning both conditions and compensation. But this must take place at a general level across all social provision of services, and not be allowed to become a question of shifting resources from one group of workers to another. And this demand must take place in a broader conversation about care – what is it, where does it happen and who does it. It is within this conversation that the question of the social wage can be raised once more from its starting point – as wages for the wageless.

More generally there is an urgent need to refocus anti-cuts campaigns around the question of our material reproduction and place demands for control at the heart of them. Here, ironically, the Big Society’s rhetoric of mutualism could be used tactically. Clearly the ConDems see this aspect of their project as merely the means to both “do more with less” (by doing more through unpaid community labour) and forcing workers and communities to implement their own cuts (by giving them much reduced budgets to work with). However by starting from the idea of worker-user alliances, there is a possibility of constructing a social force powerful enough to resist funding cuts and create worker-user allliances that co-manage and co-controll public services. By forcing the state to continue to fund our material reproduction, and using their rhetoric to push for more control at the same time, we can attempt to ensure this crisis becomes a crisis for capitalism and the state – and not for us.

For more info on the Hackney nurseries campaign, visit