One of the arguments advanced by workfare’s supporters is that the unemployed should have to work for their benefits, in order to give something back to society for supporting them and the amenities they use. Guy Standing makes an interesting rebuttal to this argument in his A Precariat Charter. He remarks that if there is such a duty to provide free or cheap labour, then it should apply to all citizens equally, who use the state’s services. He then argues that, as it’s the elite and the salariat – the middle class, salaried workers – who use the state infrastructure the most, they should have to perform the most workfare. But they aren’t. It’s levied instead on the poor and unemployed. (p. 268).
Something like compulsory workfare existed for the elite and middle class in Mao’s China. Under his version of Communism, those holding middle class jobs had to perform stints of manual labour in order to form the classless, workers’ state that he envisioned. This was one of the harshest and most utopian of Mao’s policies, and was widely attacked. Clive James, the highly respected TV critic, reviewed a documentary on Mao’s China in his column in the Observer, which showed how such forced labour broke the health of the intellectuals and artists, who were forced to do it. Now some of these stories are truly harrowing, and I’ve got every sympathy with one of the victims interviewed, a ballerina, who was forced to work as a swineherd, because Mrs Mao didn’t like her performance. But this doesn’t change the argument: if it’s unacceptable for the middle and upper classes to have to perform forced labour as part of their duty to society, then why should those, whose only crime is not to have a job?
The fact that this question is never raised – I’ve only seen it put forward by Standing – says much about the differing attitudes to class and social status in the British society, and the need to criminalise and punish the unemployed.