Posts Tagged ‘Salvation Army’

H.G. Wells’ Prediction of Workfare

October 6, 2018

I’ve just finished reading H.G. Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes, now re-published in Penguin Classics, edited and with an introduction by Patrick Parrinder and with notes by Andy Sawyer. The novel is Wells’ 1924 revised version of his earlier When the Sleeper Wakes, published in 1899. It’s the tale of Graham, an overworked insomniac, who falls into a deathlike trance in 1898 and remains sleeping in a state of suspended animation for over 200 years. When he finally awakes, in a transparent glass case constructed to show him to the masses, he finds himself at the centre of revolutionary ferment.

All the democratic hopes and aspirations of the 19th century have passed, and the new world in which he now finds himself is one immediately recognizable to SF fans and cinema buffs, who’ve seen Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis. This is a world of vast, hive-like cities of soaring tower blocks. London now has a population of 30 million, and has sucked in the population of the other cities in the UK. Where they remain, they are themselves vast tower blocks. The metropolis is covered by a glass dome. The private house has all but vanished, and people eat as well as work in public, so that the cities resembled vast hotels rather than aggregates of homes. In this vast hive, babies and children are reared away from their parents in vast nurseries, creches and kindergartens, attended by mechanical wetnurses. People move to and fro around the city on moving walkways, bridges across the gulfs between blocks, as well as funicular railways and abseiling on thin wires. Ultra-tough Eadhamite roads have replaced the railways linking city to city. The aeroplane has finally been developed – Wells wrote it before the Wright Brothers finally showed heavier than air flight was possible – and there are regular passenger flights across the world. The world has been united, and there is a global government. News and entertainment is provided not only by the theatre, but also by television, including a form of video recording. Instead of newspapers, there are the babble machines installed in public places around London, which mechanically announce the news conveyed by the various news agencies.

It is also a ruthlessly capitalist society. In the centuries while he slept, the trust set up to provide for Graham’s support during his slumber has expanded massively, buying up every other company on the face of the Earth, absorbing governments and subverting religion. The ruling council are its directors. Adverts are ubiquitous, even on the faces of the mechanical wetnurses attending the babies in the nurseries. The ruling elite regards democracy as discredited and outmoded. The commercial ethos has affected established religion, so that the Christian churches off access to the quickest and best bishops around, and conversion without upsetting your job and place in the social structure. All this is shocking enough to Graham, but he is really shaken by the condition of the toiling masses at the bottom of the social hierarchy. One third of the population wear the blue canvas of the Labour Department. This has superseded the old workhouse, and is partly based on the Salvation Army, which the Trust bought out and then subverted. Its workers are treated as serfs, toiling underground in vast, dirty factories, for a pittance. It is the refuge of the poor, the homeless and the destitute, whom it ruthlessly exploits.

This is explained to Graham by Helen Wotton, one of the rebels.

‘Workhouse! Yes – there was something. In our history lessons. I remember now. The Labour Department ousted the workhouse. It grew – partly – out of something – you, perhaps, may remember it – an emotional religious organization called the Salvation army – that became a business company. In the first place it was almost a charity. To save people from workhouse rigours. There had been great agitation against the workhouse. Now I come to think of it, it was one of the earliest properties your Trustees acquired. They bought the Salvation Army and reconstructed it as this. The idea in the first place was to organize the Labour of starving homeless people.’

‘Yes.’

‘Nowadays there are no workhouses, no refuges and charities, nothing but that Department. Its offices are everywhere. That blue is its colour. And any man, woman or child who comes to be hungry and weary and with neither home nor friend nor resort, must go to the Department in the end – or seek some way of death. the Euthanasy is beyond their means – for the poor there is no easy death. And at any hour in the day or night there is food, shelter and a blue uniform for all comers – that is the first condition of the Department’s incorporation – and in return for a day’s shelter the Department extracts a day’s work, and then returns the visitor’s proper clothing and sends him or her out again.’

‘Yes?’

‘Perhaps that does not seem so terrible to you. In your time men starved in your streets. That was bad. But they died – men. These people in blue – The proverb runs: “Blue canvas once and ever.” The Department trades in their labour, and it has taken care to assure itself of the supply. People come to it starving and helpless – they eat and sleep for a night and day, they work for a day, and at the end of the day they go out again. If they have worked well they have a penny or so – enough for a theatre or a cheap dancing place, or a kinematograph story, or a dinner or a bet. They wander about after that is spent. Begging is prevented by the police of the ways. Besides, no one gives. They come back again the next day or the day after – brought back again by the same incapacity that brought them first. At last their proper clothing wears out, or their rags get so shabby that they are ashamed. Then they must work for months to get fresh. If they want fresh. A great number of children are born under the Department’s care. The mother owes them a month thereafter – the children they cherish and educated until they are fourteen, and they pay two years’ service. You may be sure these children are educated for the blue canvas. And so it is the Department works.’ (pp. 161-2).

Okay, so it’s not quite like the Tories’ wretched welfare to work industry, in that the DWP doesn’t provide housing for the destitute. And the Tories’, and Blairites’, for that matter, prefer throwing people off benefit or finding ways to stop them getting it in the first place, than actually giving anyone work and support. But it does have many of the characteristics of workfare.

The book’s also interesting as while Well’s depicts a Christianity infused with the commercial ethos, this is not an anti-religious, anti-Christian book. Graham is shocked by this new, capitalistic religion. And when he finally gives a speech to inspire the workers revolting against their exploitation, he urges them to give themselves, just as Christ gave Himself upon the cross.

It’s a fascinating book, which shows the influence it had on subsequent dystopian literature, from Orwell’s 1984 to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. And while a piece of early Science Fiction that didn’t get the future quite right, it still contains surprising lessons for our own time.

Chip Shops and Pubs Offering Meals to the Homeless at Christmas

December 24, 2016

Yesterday, Mike over at Vox Political put up a piece commenting on the decision by two brothers in Brum, Hamid and Asef Faqiri, who own the Classic Fish Bar, to open on Christmas Day between 13.00 and 16.00 to give free turkey dinners to the elderly and the homeless. They state that they want to help those in need and make the community happy. One of the brothers, Asef, remarked that he had seen a lot of homeless people, and always wanted to help.

While Mike welcomed the twos generosity, he also pointed out the obvious danger. That by doing something to help the poor, this would be used by the Tories to justify the government doing nothing. They’d try to argue that this is David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ at work, where private charity picks up the slack from government.

Mike makes the argument instead that we pay our taxes on the understanding that the government does everything in its power to make sure that citizens aren’t homeless and starving.

He concludes:

We don’t make that argument often enough and, in the Season of Goodwill, it might be more appropriate than ever to point out that very little goodwill is coming from Westminster.

See: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/12/22/free-christmas-fish-and-chips-for-the-homeless-gives-tories-a-chance-to-justify-their-apathy/

I think there are a number of places doing this up and down the country. I heard that some of the Asian restaurants and take-aways in Cheltenham will also be doing the same, as will the Market Inn pub in Glastonbury, according to today’s Western Daily Press.

I completely share Mike’s views on this issue. What these places and the people who run them are doing is very commendable, but it runs into the trap of appearing to validate the Tories’ cuts and dismantlement of the welfare state. Maggie Thatcher began her attack on it back in the 1980s with the deliberate goal of reducing the tax burden and forcing people back on to private charity to support them. She believed it would strengthen religion, and particularly the churches, if people had to come to them for aid, rather than the state. Hence the eagerness of the Salvation Army to acquire government contracts for dealing with poverty, as well as the desire of so many of the corporate management types now running very many charities likewise to do so, while at the same time demanding that the government enact even more stringent policies against the poor, the unemployed and the homeless. For the grim details, go to Johnny Void’s blog and look up his entries on these issues.

It’s a nasty, cynical attitude to bringing people back to religion, and it many Christians believe it runs contrary to the teachings of the Bible and the Gospels. In the last of the series of Advent talks held at our local church on Thursday, the minister made precisely this point. Not that this would have had any effect on Maggie. When she gave a talk to the ruling body of the Church of Scotland back in the 1980s, expounding her view that people who didn’t work, shouldn’t get something for nothing, the guid ministers and layfolk greeted what she said with frowns and silence. It was obvious that they were very unimpressed. But it didn’t stop Maggie cutting welfare provision left and right.

So I heartily endorse Mike’s point. It needs to be repeated over and again, until someone in Westminster either gets the point, or is unable to drown it out and stop others from hearing it. If you want to see the drawbacks of this attitude, look at America. Americans are extremely generous in charitable giving. But there is a massive problem with extreme poverty in America, and one that is growing thanks to Reagan and corporatist Democrats like Obama and Killary. Private charity cannot adequately tackle poverty, no matter what Thatcher, Cameron, May and Iain Duncan Smith and Damian Green want us to believe. And this message needs to be hammered home, until the public very obviously turns away from the Tories and their lies.

American Labour History: Film about the ‘Wobblies’

May 8, 2016

This is a fascinating film by the Women’s Film Preservation Unit about the I.W.W. The International Workers of the World, or ‘Wobblies’, as they were called, were a radical American Syndicalist trade union formed at the beginning of the 20th century. They were called ‘Wobblies’ apparently because some of the Chinese workers couldn’t pronounce the ‘R’ sound, and so when they tried saying the Union’s name, it came out sounding something like ‘Wobblies’. And the name stuck.

The film traces the union’s history, from its origins to eventual demise about the time of the First World War through the memories of a group of senior citizens – old blue collar workers – who had joined it and taken part in its struggles. The Wobblies believed in the eventual ownership and management of the means of production by the workers, and the abolition of the wage system. Beyond that, as one of these elders says, they weren’t sure. They were, however, inclusive in a way that the mainstream unions, founded by Samuel Gompers, weren’t. The American Federation of Labor was a craft union that wouldn’t take unskilled labourers. Following the racial bigotry of the time, they didn’t take Blacks either. But the Wobblies did. One of the speakers is a Black man, who tells how he joined the Union because they were the only union would take and defend Black people like himself. They also took and fought for women and immigrants. Another speaker is an elderly lady, who talks about how she joined the union, and the strikes she took part in. The Wobblies allowed their women members considerable freedom, and were pilloried for it. The lady recalls how one of the accusations was that the Wobblies pushed women to the front of the demonstrations and picket lines. She replied that they didn’t. They just didn’t keep them at the back. It was up to the women themselves where they went.

They also recruited the immigrant workers that were then flooding into America as its population expanded massively to provide labour for its expanding economy. This was the period when logging began in the great wood and the railways were still being laid down across America. Workers were needed in factories, mills and docks. And so the Wobblies recruited Italians, Poles and other nationalities. These men and women too suffered tremendous prejudice and persecution for their membership of the union during the First World War, and particularly after the Russian Revolution. The Wobblies were persecuted as a revolutionary, ‘Communist’ organisation. There was a wave of xenophobia resulting in the ‘Palmer raids’, anti-immigrant police raids in which foreign workers were rounded up and deported. This was directed at the I.W.W., but the authorities frequently couldn’t find enough of them, and so just picked up foreign workers at random. It should come as no surprise that the Fascist Right in Britain in the interwar years also wanted similar raids against suspected foreign revolutionaries, or just plain foreigners, over here.

These were men and women, who had extremely rough lives, working immensely hard for poverty wages. The Black speaker describes what it was like to be a dock worker. Further on in the film, one of the other surviving workers, a White guy, was a lumberjack. He describes the appalling conditions he and the other men worked in. They were lodged in bunkhouses with no washing facilities and no mattresses on the bunks. The result was that they were riddled with lice and bedbugs. He also says that there was saying that you could smell a lumberjack before you could hear him, and you could hear him before you could see him. And the work itself was tough and dangerous. The same guy talks about the various bones he broke in accidents, including when he was crushed by a log and his entrails ‘were pushed out my tail-end’. He also shows the stump of one of his fingers, which he lost in another accident. At the camp, the dinner plates weren’t washed properly. They were nailed to the tables to stop them being stolen by bindlestiffs – migrant workers, who preyed on other tramps. They were simply hosed down after the meals were finished. Many of the workers were also farm labourers, picking fruit.

And in addition to the work, there was brutal repression by the police and management. The speakers describe armed police coming into break up the strikes, and the extreme violence used against picketing workers. Any excuse would do to get a striker into court. One of the ladies describes how she was arrested on a charge of using obscene language against one of the cops. Fortunately, she was acquitted when she told the judge, ‘You’re honour, I don’t use such language’. A week later the same cop asked her out. She turned him down, not surprisingly.

In addition to the violence from the police, there was the threat of the scab labourers recruited by management. These also came in with guns and police protection. As a result, strikes could explode into extreme violence, including gun fights. In one strike involving the dock workers, 127 people were shot to death or otherwise killed. In another incident, striking workers, who got on a boat to get to their workplace were fired upon by the management, leading to four deaths. The government became involved in many strikes, using tactics that would now be considered ‘Fascistic’. Or should be. The army were frequently called in to shoot and arrest them. During the First World War, the union left it a matter of individual conscience whether to oppose the War or not. Many did, including one who was sent to France. The reason presented for American intervention was that Europe – France and England – owed America money. So the Wobbly went down the line of American doughboys in the trenches asking them if the Europeans owed ’em anything personally. Of course they didn’t, though he describes some of the younger, more patriotic men getting angry. When the union went on strike, they were accused by the government of being collaborators with the Kaiser and the enemy. And when the Russian Revolution broke out in October 1917, they were accused of working for the Russians to bring America down. One of the ladies describes how striking men, including her husband, were rounded up by the army, and then taken to what seems like an internment camp out in the desert, loaded into freight cars with no food or water.

Much of the Wobblies’ membership came from migrant workers. In order to get to new jobs, these frequently travelled by freight train across the country looking for work. It was extremely hazardous. One of the workers describes the sadness of passing lit homes, while himself hungry. The train crew operated a racket, in which they’d charge the workers for their journey. This stopped when the union put in its own strong arm gang, who dealt out their own rough justice to them. Then there were the hijackers, who get on to a train to rob its passengers. These particularly targeted union organisers, as they frequently carried thousands of dollars worth of union fees with them. One of the tactics used against the trade unionists was to thrown them off the train, so that they fell under the wheels of the car. Again, the union was also capable of defending its members against them. When of these guys describes how they cut the letters I.W.W. onto the forehead and cheeks of a hijacker with a razor as a lesson.

One of the workers also describes how they managed to get a free ride at management’s expense. The company hired a whole load of scab workers and was paying for them to travel by train. So the Wobblies got on too and began busily recruiting them. Those that didn’t, were thrown off, so that by the time they all arrived, nearly everyone on the train was a Wobbly. Which naturally made the management furious. The lumberjack also describes the ‘stand-up’ strikes that frequently did more harm to the company than the sit-down strikes. These were basically go-slows, or work to rules, where the workers went into the forests for work, but either vanished, or did as little as possible. And the former dockworkers describe how the union supported starving workers with soup kitchens, and that after they won the dispute, the leaders organised a banquet for the workers.

The Wobblies declined after the War as a result of police and state repression, and from ideological divisions in the union itself between Communists and Anarchists after the Russian Revolution. Many members felt that they ought to be trying to start a revolution in America. They were sympathetic to the Russian Revolution, and argued that the Russians had finally done it while they talked about it. The former lumberjack describes how the debates between the revolutionary and anti-revolutionary factions got so heated, that debates would frequently end in fist fights.

Although the memories of the former workers are at the heart of this movie, this isn’t simply a staid film of rather boring talking heads. Along with the speakers themselves are contemporary archive footage, newspaper headlines, and anti-Wobblie propaganda cartoons, including an animated sequence which I think may well have been from them, rather than being a contemporary film, though I might be wrong. It also includes dramatic recitation of some of the words of the Wobblies themselves. It begins with the voice of Wobblies being questioned about their country of origin, all giving various answers which avoided ‘America’, but in line with their belief that they were all indeed the Industrial Workers of the World. It also includes some of the words of the American capitalists against whom the I.W.W. were pitched in battle, and these are very ugly. One industrialists stated that the man who did not pay his workers below the minimum wage level, robbed his shareholders. Forget Dave Cameron’s and his Republican counterparts’ in America smooth words about the Tories being ‘for hardworking people’: this is the true, brutal face of capitalism.

The film’s also enlivened considerably by the songs of the Wobblies themselves. The Union was known for its songs, and many of the workers interviewed describe keeping their song books with them, or singing during the strike to keep their spirits up. Some of these are beautiful pieces of American folk song, often with a wry humour, like ‘Hooray, I’m a Bum’. I don’t agree with some of the anti-religious sentiment in a couple of these, though I can see why they were written. They were produced at a time when many towns passed laws against street orators, with the exception of the Salvation Army. The Wobblies themselves used to set up meetings in the streets to recruit new members, with the speaker himself standing on a soapbox. The police would arrest them while leaving the Sally Ann speakers alone. And so there developed a vicious rivalry between the two organisations for speaking pitches. Looking through the music credits, I saw that one of the arrangements was sung by Peggy Seeger and England’s own Ewan MacColl, the father of British pop singer Kirsty, and writer of the classic ‘Dirty Old Town’.

It also uses paintings of some of the strikes, presumably created by the workers themselves. These are naturally naïve in style, but nevertheless constitute valuable pieces of folk art from one of America’s most notorious outsider groups.

This is a fascinating, harrowing, exuberant movie about a labour group that is little known over this side of the Atlantic. Looking down the list of comments on the Youtube page, one of the commenters remarked that this is the type of history that’s been removed from the official version. Indeed it is. It’s the type of history that at one time would have made it onto Channel 4 or possibly PBS in the Land of the Free. Now you’re only likely to see it either on BBC 4, or at your local arts cinema.

Three Reforms for the Outsourcing Industry

April 2, 2016

Earlier today I put up a piece about how the members of the Nazis’ industrial advisory had to swear an oath of eternal loyalty to Adolf Hitler, and to use their industries and its profits to building up the Volksgemeinschaft, and so serving the whole community, rather than their own private interests. Well, the Nazis had a kind of outsourcing, in that they appointed the head Allianz, the biggest of the German insurance companies, to head the economics ministry. Hitler also sought the active co-operation of big business, deliberately toning down the anti-capitalist rhetoric and moving to stop the SA and the Nazi ‘left’ wing from doing anything radical like socialising industry.

I do wonder, however, how popular outsourcing would be if the heads of the industries involved had to swear a democratic version of the oath, in which they vowed to serve the democratically elected prime minister and parliament, and to devote their profits and energies to the whole of the British people, conceived on a non-racist basis, rather than on their own corporate profit. To some it probably wouldn’t matter, but I can others complaining at the presumption of having to swear such an oath. Florence in her comment to the post also made the point that, more importantly, the Freedom of Information Act should also be extended to cover them. It’s a good idea, and one many others have made before. It would allow the British public to know what they’re doing, and also allow the firms and sectors we wish to keep nationalised to continue to compete against them. At present the system works in the privatisers’ favour. They can use the FOI to see what the nationalised industries intend, and then try to undercut them. It doesn’t work the other way, of course. If you try to get a peek at what they intend to do, you find it’s prohibited on the grounds of company confidentiality. It’s commercially sensitive information, and so not to be divulged to the public. Even though the nationalised industries have to release it, and the private industries are competing for state business. But nevertheless, that’s how the Tories give work to their paymasters in big business.

I’ve thought about three reforms which might bring about a much needed change in the predatory and exploitative culture of the outsourcing sector.

1. Introduce worker’s representation in the boardroom.

A company’s workforce also have a solid interest in the performance of their company, and can introduce much needed financial stability. Han-Joon Chang points out that businesses in those European countries, Germany and Austria, which have such a system of workers’ representation, are much more stable and profitable financially, than industries which are run exclusively for the profit of the shareholders. Furthermore, for sometime employees in the civil servants had something like this in the Whitley Councils. These were set up during the First World War to compensate workers for the lost of the right to strike. They were dismantled in favour of a less authoritarian system in the rest of British industry after the war, so that they trade unions could carry on bargaining for the workers. Such a system should be revived, and introduced into the outsourcing sector as these have replaced the traditional civil service organs.

2. Boardroom representation of the unemployed ‘clients’ on the boards of workfare companies.

Welfare to work providers exist by exploiting the unemployed as cheap labour, under the guise of retraining workers to help them back into the labour market. However, in order to prevent the gross exploitation of such cheap labour by profiteering companies like Tesco, Sainsbury’s and charities like the Salvation Army, the actual people taken on by these companies to be retrained should also have their interests represented at the management level. This would stop abuses like that Mike covered in Scotland, where one council started a system of fining the people sent to them on the welfare to work course for such trivial offences as tutting, talking back or walking around with your hands in your pockets. Failure to pay the fines could lead you to being thrown off the course, and consequently off benefit. See Mike’s article at: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/04/01/jobseekers-on-council-run-course-face-cash-fines-for-tutting-or-answering-phones/.

3. Part nationalise these companies. As these companies are working on government business, it is right that the state should also have a hand in them to make sure they are properly regulated and managed. Han-Joon Chang has also pointed out that this also has beneficial effect in providing financial stability, as shown by some of the part-nationalised firms in France. Of course, this would also mean streamlining some of the management structure, as private enterprise has many tiers of bureaucracy that is redundant under state management.

Or we could scrap outsourcing altogether.

As an alternative to all the above, we could just get rid of the ludicrously expensive, bureaucratic and profiteering Private Finance Initiative and Public-Private Partnerships, to renationalise those industries and services that should never have been put out to private tender in the first place, like schools, prisons and hospitals. And then we could set up unemployment retraining schemes that would work for the unemployed, not the overpaid heads of the outsourcing companies, like G4S, Serco, Maximus and the other wasters.

Ramsey on Slave Labour at American Homeless Shelters

July 22, 2015

I’ve reblogged a lot of material from Johnny Void and other bloggers, who are rightly sharply critical of the Salvation Army over here because of their use of unpaid workfare labour in their charity shops. Yesterday, an American commenter posted their observations on the similar exploitation of the homeless by the homeless shelters and charities in America. Ramsey signed themselves ‘a slave in America’, and after reading the post it’s very easy to understand why. Here it is.

If you are homeless you are discriminated against in the homeless shelters. They make you work 30+ hours for nothing so you are stuck there working for them. It’s like slave labor either stay and work for them have no time or money to be able to find gainful employment or live on the streets and sleep on the sidewalks, ditches or even under dumpsters. They seem to be able to bypass all federal and state labor laws with no consciences. They say they are non- profit yet they take portions of ssi payments, receive grants, and own resale shops that they get merchandise for for free. We wonder why America is the shape it is. This a nation wide problem the missions are a drain on the tax payer through grants and keeping homeless as slave labor. The homeless are then a drain on the taxpayer through food stamps and not being able to obtain gainful employment and pay fair share of taxes due to lack of job. It’s simple if your homeless you are stuck as slave labor or stay on the streets and get no work due to your inability to shower, shave, and sleep properly. This will never change until the congress or president put forth a bill abolishing this discrimination against the homeless and makes the missions stop slave labor and pay minimum wage as everyone else who has individuals doing manual labor. As soon as this happens then the sooner our homeless problem goes away as far as those homeless that are addicts a random drug test at there expense from there earnings at the facility will weed them out. Thank you! Sincerely, A slave in America.

From this, it’s pretty clear that Ramsey’s speaking from personal experience. And it’s an experience shared by countless others on both sides of the Atlantic. I’ve got a feeling it was Bill Clinton, who actually made workfare widespread in America after the idea was floated by the Republicans under Reagan. I also have the impression that it was George ‘Dubya’ Bush, who effectively turned the Sally Ann and other charities in America into outsourced government service providers, thus turning voluntary work and formal charities into the profitable ‘third sector’ through the use of forced labour mandated under the workfare schemes.

These schemes were championed by the Tories way back in 1982 under Thatcher, and have now been firmly put in place by Cameron and his fellow parasites and profiteers. One of the hack on the I newspaper ran an article the other week criticising the government for forcing charities to abandon any criticism of the government and its policies, in order to turn them into front-line service providers. Of course, she’s right, as poverty in this country has been caused, or at least, vastly exacerbated by the government’s policies.

The use of workfare should be abandoned immediately, and voluntary work should be kept voluntary, not foisted on people through ‘work coaches’ and private firms seeking to expand their income stream and get yet more lucrative government contracts through the exploitation of the poor and the unemployed. Johnny Void in particular has links to a number of organisations and groups protesting about this, so go to his website for further details on what you can do there.

Boycott Workfare Demonstration Against the Salvation Army 2nd May

April 13, 2015

The anti-workfare organisation, Boycott Workfare, have announced on their post ‘Sanction the Salvation Army’ that they are holding a protest against the Sally Ann on the 2nd May, from 12.00 to 1.30 pm, at the church’s international HQ by the Millennium Bridge in London. They’re organising the protest as the Salvation Army is one of the dwindling number of organisations still using forced unpaid labour from the government’s workfare schemes. They want to shame the church into stopping using this form of exploitation.

The article’s at http://www.boycottworkfare.org/?p=4281, and includes a link to the protest’s Facebook page.

Private Eye on Workfare Exploitation: Nice Little Earner

February 7, 2014

Serf Work

Russian serfs at work – a system Cameron and the Coalition wish to bring to Britain with workfare.

I found this article on how the government is using Welfare to Work to supply cheap labour to big business, rather than get people into work, in last fortnight’s issue of Private Eye.

Nice Little Earner

Welfare to work companies could end up earning more taxpayer cash by placing people into unpaid community workfare than into work, under the government’s latest scheme for the unemployed. The companies could even profit from recruiting the unpaid workers themselves.

From April, through the new Community Work Placements (CWPP, thousands of benefit claimants will have to do six-moths’ workfare for charities and community organisations or lose benefit. They will be expected to do 30 hours of unpaid work a week up to a total of 780 hours – which is more than double the 300-hour maximum offenders serve on community pay-back.

It is all part of the controversial £300m “Help To Work” package, which is aimed at the hundreds of thousands of people who leave the government’s dismal Work Programme without a job.

Favourites to run 18 schemes across the country include the scandal hit A4E and Atos, the least favourite outsourcing giant among disabled people, as well as charities such as the Conservation Volunteers, Groundwork UK, the Salvation Army and YMCA. Tender documents, however, reveal payment conflicts in the scheme that may make it as wasteful a way of getting people into work as the Work Programme itself. And with CWP, workfare companies could potential sign unpaid workers to their own businesses and be paid by taxpayers for doing so if they can show that the unpaid role has “community benefit”.

Payment will also be incremental: work companies will get 20 per cent of an agreed fee at the start of any placement, a further 20 percent when someone has been on placement or in paid work for over 12 weeks, and a further 30 percent after 22 weeks on workfare, work or a combination of the two. They only receive the final 30 percent if the claimant finds a permanent job lasting at least six months. This creates a built-in disincentive to find people temporary work before completion of at least 22 weeks on CWP – companies will earn on 40 percent of the fee otherwise. They not only lose the final 30 percent of the fee for failing to secure a permanent job, but miss out on 30 percent of the fee if a temporary job ends before 22 weeks and the company is unable to move the claimant straight into other short-term work or a work placement.

As previous studies have shown, the voluntary sector has no real need for hundreds of thousands of unpaid workers. Most charities do not have the capacity or skills to employ chaotic individuals dubbed the “hardest to help” – and many are opposed to what they see as the exploitative nature of forced unpaid work, which puts others out of employment.

Many major UK charities, including Oxfam, Scope, Marie Curie and Shelter, have said they will have nothing to do with workfare. The tender documents themselves make it clear that the Department for Work and Pensions itself does not expect to pay the full 100 percent in the vast majority of cases – it does not expect more than a fifth of participants to find a permanent job. Community work placements seem more designed to force people to worki unpaid than they do to help people find real jobs.’

Which is exactly what Johnny Void and others, including myself, are also saying.

An Anthropological View of Homelessness in America – With Lessons for Britain

February 3, 2014

Anthony Marcus, Where Have All The Homeless Gone? The Making and unmaking of a Crisis (New York: Berghahn 2006)

America Homeless

We got a thousand points of light for the homeless man.
We got a kinder, gentler kind of napalm

– Neil Young, ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’.

I’ve posted a couple of piece before on some of the points this book makes about homelessness in America, and its relevance to Britain. One of the most important was the way the massive debt crisis of New York City’s municipal government in 1975 formed the template for Mrs Thatcher’s destruction of the welfare state in Britain, and the Coalition’s further attempts to end it altogether in the second decade of the 21st century.

The End of the Welfare State in New York and the Beginning of the Homeless Crisis

New York did have something like Britain’s welfare state, even a form of the dole and affordable, rent controlled housing. In 1975 it overspent to the point where it was unable to pay off its debt. In return for giving the City the right to issue bonds allowing it to finance its debt, the City was placed under the fiscal management of a consortium of businessmen and bankers to ensure its fiscal good government. These made swingeing cuts in the City’s welfare provision, to the point where millions were thrown out of their jobs. Unable to pay their rent, many were forced to move away from New York, while others were forced onto the streets. The rent controls remained, but instead of keeping housing affordable, they resulted in many landlords being unable to afford to maintain their properties. As a result, many were left without basic services like electricity or water, others were abandoned completely as landlords went bankrupt. Some landlords even firebombed their tenements to collect on the insurance. The result was a massive increase in homelessness. At the same time, the location and visibility of New York’s rough sleepers changed. Instead of being confined to certain run down districts – the traditional Skid Row of urban American geography, the homeless moved out into the more upmarket residential districts and even into the city centre.

Racial Stereotypes of Homelessness

The Black community was particularly hard hit. Many of the homeless men interviewed by Marcus were well-educated, from reasonably affluent, middle class backgrounds. However, the Black community particularly relied upon the municipal government, either directly or indirectly for their jobs, and so were disproportionately hit when those jobs were shed. The result was that the stereotypical image of a homeless person in the period in which Marcus worked – the late 1980s and first years of the 1990s – was a poorly dressed, mentally ill Black person. Marcus takes particular care to counter this stereotype, as it formed the basis for the campaigns of several of City’s leaders, like Mayor Dinkins, to tackle homelessness. It ignored the vast numbers of homeless Whites and the homeless Blacks, who were articulate and dressed neatly. While much effort was directed at those groups that corresponded to the stereotype, these people were ignored as they simply didn’t match contemporary ideas of who the homeless were.

The book is based on the doctoral research Marcus did amongst a group of fifty homeless Black men working for one of the City’s homelessness projects from 1989 to 1993. It is his attempt to answer the question of what happened to public awareness of the issue of homelessness. He points out that from 1983 to 1993 homelessness was one of the biggest American political issues. There were rock songs about homeless people, and universities, charities, politicians, and activist groups attempted to study and tackle the issue.

This concern evaporated from 1993 onwards. The crisis continued and the availability of proper, affordable housing continued to fall, but increasingly less attention was paid to the issue. Funds for its study dried up, and the academics researching it moved away to fresher, and more lucrative areas of study. Marcus quotes one of his former research colleagues as laughing when Marcus told him he was writing up his Ph.D. research, declaring that homelessness was so last century.

Critiques of the ‘Cultures of Poverty’

Much of Marcus’ book is a critique of the narrow historiographical focus that determined that rather than tackle the root causes of the homeless crisis in lack of suitably paid jobs, affordable housing and welfare policies that would allow the unemployed to get and retain accommodation, saw the problem exclusively in terms of the supposed moral defects of the homeless themselves in a mirror-image of the ‘cultures of poverty’ view. This grew out of the previous studies of American homelessness centred around Skid Row, the decrepit section of American towns occupied by single-occupancy hotels for the homeless, and a population of homosexuals, transvestites, prostitutes and other marginal, transgressive or bohemian groups. The other major influence was Michael Harrington’s book, The Other America, which examined the squalor and poverty in urban Black ghettoes. As a result, when the American welfare state, under Richard Nixon, began to tackle unemployment and homelessness, it did so with the assumption that the homeless themselves were somehow responsible for their condition. They were supported, but that support was made as unpleasant as possible in order to force them to come off welfare whenever possible. Hence the penalisation of the unemployed through demeaning forms of state support such as food stamps, rather than a welfare cheque. Seen the similarity to the attitudes of Cameron, Clegg, IDS and McVie yet?

Cultures of Deviancy and Violence in Homeless Shelters

This attitude by the authorities that there is a ‘culture of poverty’, created by and defined by the idleness, drunkenness, profligacy and other inappropriate behaviour of the poor themselves is particularly attacked by Marcus. He found that there was no difference in morals and behaviour between the homeless people he studied, and those of the wider population. This included the ‘shelterisation’ debate surrounding the perceived culture of violence in the homeless shelters. These had been set up in New York in response to the finding of a judge that the City had failed in its legal duty to provide shelter and wholesome food for a homeless man that had been turned away from one. Marcus states that for most of the residents of these shelters, their greatest problem was finding a lead long enough to reach the wall socket so that they could do their ironing. Nevertheless, the violent criminals included in the shelters’ population meant that the developed a reputation for being dominated by ex-convict bodybuilders and their transvestite shelter ‘wives’. Marcus found that rather than being a gay space, homeless gay men were subjected to the same levels of abuse and intimidation they experienced in the outside world. Their attitude to the ex-cons was that they weren’t really gay. At the same time they had their transvestite lovers in the shelter, they also had heterosexual relationship with wives and girlfriends outside. One of Marcus’ gay informants told him that if you watched the ex-cons outside, they never held hands or socialised with their transvestite shelter partners. He concluded that they were really heterosexual men, who just wanted to have sex and weren’t concerned with whom they had it in the single sex environment of the homeless shelters.

Marcus concluded that the shelters developed their reputation for violence and bizarre behaviour, as few researchers actually interacted or examined the way their residents behaved outside of its environment. The methodological problems were too difficult, making it almost impossible. So instead the academics concentrated on their behaviour inside the shelter, and unconsciously assumed that their behaviour was formed by it. Marcus gradually came to the opposite conclusion – that the men in the homeless shelters acted as they did, not because of the environment of the homeless shelter, but because that was what they did anyway. So the various types of bizarre and slovenly behaviour, which normally remained hidden in the confines of a private home, such as one resident, who never got up on a Sunday morning but simply urinated into a glass by the side of his bed, was suddenly on public display.

Homeless Not Radically Different or Separate from Rest of Population

Linked to this was a wider problem in identifying just who exactly the homeless were. Many of the individuals studied only spent part of their time sleeping in public. Other nights they slept round a friends or girlfriends, or were given room in an airing cupboard or basement by a kindly janitor in return for doing cleaning work. There was also a wider population of young people sleeping on the floors of friends while they looked for an apartment after graduating from university. These middle class, educated Americans weren’t seen as homeless.

And many of the Black homeless men Marcus interviewed didn’t see themselves as homeless either. They compared their state to that of young Whites, who had just graduated. It was a similar stage of carefree abandon until they finally hit maturity and sorted themselves out, got a proper job and apartment. Marcus also notes that for many Black homeless men, their condition meant acting out a variety of roles. He called them The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The Good was the White man’s negro, who accepted mainstream, White American culture and values when it meant impressing White academics or employers in order to get a job or a place on an educational programme. The Bad was that of the angry, violent Black man. His informants told him they had to adopt this pose, as otherwise Whites would just see them as ‘niggers’ and disparage or exploit them. They had stories of an effeminate ‘White man’s Negro’, who tried to fit in with the culture of his White colleagues and bosses, only for him to be exploited and sacked. Interestingly, the models taken for this role of violent, rebellious Black masculinity were all race-natural. They included ‘Leatherface’, from Tobe Hooper’s class bit of grue, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Sean Connery’s James Bond. Indeed, many of Marcus’ Black informants identified by Connery so much that they felt sure that Scotland’s cinematic hard man was Black, at least partly. The Ugly was a term coined by Marcus himself, and referred to those homeless, who dressed badly and had lost both their sanity and dignity. It was a role the men studied by Marcus most disliked, because of its passivity, and lack of masculinity. Nevertheless, many homeless Black men adopted it in order to get some of the benefits that were only available through this role.

Disillusionment with Regime in ‘Not-for-Profit’ Housing

Eventually the scandal surrounding the violence and criminality within the municipal shelters became so great that the City authorities were forced to act. The system was privatised, so that instead or supplementing the vast municipal shelters were a system of ‘transient’ accommodation run by not-for-profit corporations. These were supposed to be smaller, and more responsive to their residents’ needs than the City homeless provision. Marcus examines these too, and demonstrates how many of the shelter residents became increasingly disillusioned with them, even to the point where they preferred moving back to the shelters or onto the streets.

What Marcus’ informants most objected to was the intense regimentation and supervision of almost every aspect of their lives. This was supposedly to help the homeless develop the right attitudes and habits that would allow them to move out of the transient housing and into a proper apartment with a proper job. In practice, this control was absolute and degrading. Security was tight, and the inmates were rigorously searched as they entered the building. The not-for-profits, like the shelters, also broke up heterosexual couples. Many of the homeless studied by Marcus had mental health problems of varying severity. Some were particularly ill, while others were less affected. Marcus says that in some the level of mental illness was so slight, he suspected that it may have been a pretence by the sufferer to get off the streets by feigning illness. Well, you can’t blame them for that. As part of the conditions of residence, these men were forced to take medication to combat their mental problems. They complained that it left them feeling like zombies, and deprived them of their sexual functions, a sense of emasculation, which, naturally, they particularly resented.

Lack of Economic Opportunities for Moving into Paid Work in Homeless Shelters

Coupled with this was the way the system knocked back any homeless person, who tried to get a proper job and move out of the hostel. I’ve already blogged on the experience of one homeless man, who hopefully moved to a Salvation Army home in the expectation that he would be given worthwhile work. He wasn’t, and spent his time there sweeping up, for which he was paid 17c an hour. Other homeless men in not-for-profits elsewhere found themselves unable to get work, that would pay sufficiently well for them to get a proper apartment, or a place on one of the few rent-controlled tenements held by the City. The amount of welfare paid to the homeless, which came down to a take home pay of $100 a month for those in the shelter, and $540 for those on the streets, simply wasn’t enough for them to get an apartment and support themselves. As a result, many of the most ambitious and enterprising homeless men got jobs, which they soon lost and so had to move back into the shelter. The social workers and shelter staff were aware of the problem and did their level best to try to dissuade them from trying to get proper jobs so that they would retain their SSI welfare payments. In the shelter, however, the only jobs these homeless men could do were ‘make work’ jobs, sweeping, cleaning and so on. Some of the homeless thus preferred to get jobs outside, as book keepers or security guards, or working off the books as labourers unpacking trucks for local grocery stores. These were better paid, and in the case of one homeless man, gave him status and power over the ex-con hard men working underneath him. They did not, however, pay well enough for them to get a home of their own. Marcus observes that the system seemed to have been set up in the expectation they would fail.

The Crisis in the Black Family: No Different from White Family

The book goes on to tackle the issue of the Black family, and its role in the lack of Black achievement compared to that of immigrant groups such as Asians and Latin Americans. Marcus notes that the Black family is seen as weaker, and more prone to breakdown, than the family structures of other ethnic groups. This lack of family support is seen as being the cause of the lack of social and economic advance in the Black community. Politicians, religious leaders and activists have compared the fragile Black family with the supposedly more robust structures of that of their immigrant counterparts. Instead of conflict and breakdown, these families have a high degree of mutual support and integration, so that immigrants groups like Koreans and Latinos are able to use the unpaid labour of other family members to set up prosperous businesses. Marcus shows how, as a result, Black American churches, community groups and the Nation of Islam exhort their members to take Maya Angelou’s ‘Black Family Pledge’ and emulate the family structure, solidarity and work ethic of their more prosperous immigrant counterparts.

This view of the dysfunctional character of the Black family is similarly permeated by the ‘cultures of poverty’ debate. The Black family is seen as having a uniquely dysfunctional structure and lack of values, that hinders Black Americans from achieving the same success as their White and immigrant compatriots. Marcus again takes issue with this, and demonstrates that the comparison between Black and immigrant families is false. Like is not being compared with like. Marcus states that the structure of the Black family, while different from that of recent immigrant groups, is actually no different from that of White America. He states

‘It will be my argument that, indeed, African-American families living in poverty are generally less suited to certain types of mutual aid in poverty than are their immigrant counterparts. however, this is not because of a defect in the black family or some failure to live up to American kinship norms. Rather, it is because the cultural templates of the black family, even among the poorest and least integrated into “the mainstream,” are fundamentally similar to those of other American families. Nuclear and neo-local in its norms, the African-American family, like its white counterpart, is built around voluntary companionate marriage; the shared values, identity markers, and consumption patterns of its members, and the right to seek individual accomplishment and emotional self-realization. Typically supported on a foundation of legally regulated wage labor, subsidized mortgages, individual savings, public education, state entitlement programs, and socio-legal protections by police and courts, this family type, which I will refer to as the “consumption family,” appears dysfuncational in the absence of such state provisioning and when compared to certain immigrant kinship structures, which I will refer to as the “accumulation family”.’

The “Accumulation Family” of Immigrants to America

Marcus then goes on to describe the “accumulation family” as ‘built around extended kin networks, intense group sacrifice, delayed or permanently postponed gratification, and large amounts of captive low-wage or unpaid family-based labor, particularly from women, children, new arrivals, and other dependents with less recourse to external labor options and social rights’. Marcus points out that while Black families are more likely to break down or experience real difficulties, this is not because Blacks somehow have a different set of family values from their White compatriots. They don’t. It’s simply because the Black family is generally under more acute social pressure than White families, due to the poor social and economic position of Black Americans.

As for the “accumulation family” of southern European, Latin American and Asian immigrants, this depends very much on the unpaid labour of its weaker members – women, children and new arrivals. As such, members of these ethnic groups may increasingly see it as exploitative and backward as they assimilate the values and social structures of their new home, and go from being people with one feet in America and the other in their country of origin, to more or less acculturated Americans.

Housing Panic and Social Solidarity with Squatters, Homeless and Anarchist Activists

Marcus also investigates the way the housing panic over increasingly rents and the threat of eviction created a strong sense of solidarity between ordinary citizens in New York’s slum districts, and the squatters, homeless and Anarchist activists sharing the neighbourhood. The world-wide economic depression of 1982-3 resulted in New York receiving hundreds of thousands of immigrants from eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia, as well as the yuppies graduating from the University. At the same time as the blue collar workers moved out, the white collar financial and IT workers moved in. Rents shot up, to the point where some of the buildings that were worth less than $2,000 in 1977 were worth half a million or more by 1990. Many landlords were, however, prevented from increasing their rents for long-standing tenants through the City’s stringent rent stabilisation laws. Some landlords attempted to circumvent these by putting in unnecessary renovations, as recently renovated premises were immune from the controls under the legislation. Other long-standing tenants, particularly the elderly, found themselves subjected to violence and intimidation, including being thrown down stairs, in order to force them to move out. The result was that slum and low-rent districts, like Hells Kitchen, Loisaida (the Lower East Side), the printing district, West Harlem, and the Bowery became gentrified, and relaunched under the names Clinton, the East Village, Tribeca, Morningside Heights and Noho.

The result of this was that ordinary working and lower middle class New Yorkers suffered increasing alarm at the prospect of being forced out onto the streets. This resulted in popular sympathy for the murderer and cannibal Daniel Rakowitz, who killed his girlfriend, a foreign dancer, after she tried to throw him out after their affair had ended. He was caught serving up her remains as soup to the local homeless. In the East Village, tensions between the municipal authorities and ordinary residents exploded into violence when the police tried to clear the homeless, who had occupied Tompkins Square Park to form a ‘tent city’. Local residents insisted that the violence was cause, not by the homeless, but by anarchists, squatters and youths looking for trouble from outside the area, as well as some local residents. Marcus was told by one waiter at a plush restaurant that ‘this is total war and we need to make the neighbourhood unlivable for yuppies’. In fact, Marcus does point that some of the homeless did fight back, but the fiercest fighting was done by the other groups identified in the riot. He also notes that when some of the yuppies renting properties in the area were questioned, many of them were in fact in the same boat as the rest of the residents, and spending more than half their income on rent.

Marcus believed that the solidarity between the anarchists, squatters, homeless and the area’s ordinary residents occurred because for nearly a decade these groups had created a local counterculture centred on homelessness. In 1990 a group of anarchists, squatters and homeless from Tent City took over the remains of Public School 105, located on Fourth Street between Avenues B and C, and turned it into an alternative community centre. They intended to turn it into permanent, semi-permanent and temporary housing for the homeless, as well as setting up remedial reading, GED-high school equivalency test preparation and plumbing, carpentry and electrical repair classes. It also became the focus for various other anti-gentrification and radical, anti-state groups. A local Communist group, the ‘Class War Tendency’, set up classes in political economy, while a radical priest, who was a housing activist, helped the homeless to set up a soup kitchen in the Community Centre. As a result, the cops moved in in force to retake the Community Centre and clear out its homeless and radical occupants. Marcus notes that the anarchists, squatters and Tent City homeless believed that they were defending everyone’s right to a home, and many people in the neighbourhood concurred.

The radicals lost the battle for Public School 105. In 1991 Mayor David Dinkins cleared them from Tent City in Tompkins Square Park. Four years later, in August 1995, his success, Giuliani, moved in to clear the squatters out from three large tenements on 13th Street between Avenues A and Avenue B. They were successful, and although some residents attacked Giuliani as ‘Mussolini on the Hudson’, this time there was a lot less sympathy for the radicals. There still was a housing problem, and many of the anarchists, squatters and homeless people from the Park remained in the area. However, the housing panic was over, and there was a sense of defeat about being able to beat the forces of authority and create an alternative community.

American Thatcherism, Clinton and the Rise and Fall of Homelessness as an Issue

The final chapter examines the political forces that shaped the housing crisis and ultimately led to it becoming a forgotten issue. Marcus states that while most writers consider that the problems were the result of the ‘Reagan Revolution’, the cuts in state expenditure and particularly welfare that eventually led to the crisis began with the Democrat, Jimmy Carter. It was Carter, who tried to overturn Nixon’s Keynsianism and Great Society/New Deal ideology. He did not, however, have any coherent ideology, and so his attempts to cut expenditure were modest. This was to change with the election of Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s PM in 1979. It was Thatcher, who took over and turned into a coherent ideology the Chicago School economic theories, tried to break the unions, privatise public services, cut welfare spending, transfer public sector housing to the private sector, and made ‘liberal use of the military at home and abroad’. He states that in her war against the Labour party, she attacked notions of social democracy, and corporatist or civic belonging. Although she was forced out by the poll tax riots, Thatcherism remained the dominant ideology.

Thatcher’s ideology was taken over and shared over the other side of the Atlantic by Ronald Reagan. Although, unlike Thatcher, Reagan could not produce a coherent ideology, nevertheless the values he espoused were so deeply embedded in American culture that ultimate his reach was deeper, and Reagan’s attack on the unions, the New Deal and the welfare state, such as it was, was far more thorough than Thatcher could achieve.

Nevertheless, Reagan’s reforms were still hotly contested in the decade from 1982 to 1992. This changed with Bill Clinton’s election. Suddenly there was much less coverage of homeless issues in the media, and public concern about homelessness vanished. Homelessness remains, and there is still a homeless crisis with rising rents and a lack of affordable housing. However, although Hilary Clinton briefly touched on the issue during her senatorial campaign against Giuliani, few Democrats or Republicans seemed to wish to return to the issue. Marcus considers that public interest in homelessness disappeared due to the economic boom of the last years of Clinton’s presidency. This revitalised formerly moribund sectors of the American economy, unemployment was at its lowest for several decades and there was a general feeling of optimism. Amidst the boom and growth, there was little appreciation that poverty was still present and needed tackling. Marcus states that despite this optimism and the boost to the financial sector of the collapse of the Soviet Union, globalisation and information technology, the economy will inevitably contract to plunge millions into poverty and misery once more. The book was published in 2006. We only had to wait four more years before this happened.

Homelessness and Poverty Caused by Structure of Society, not Individual Failings

He believed that now, when the good times were still rolling, was the time to tackle poverty, rather than wait till after the next set of riots. He makes the point that although there was much discussion at the time about Reagan’s removal of the safety net and those who were ‘disappearing through its cracks’, no one ever raised the question about why the safety net should be necessary in the first place. The homeless crisis was just part of deteriorating social conditions across America, which saw ordinary citizens having to work harder for much less rewards. He writes

‘A safety net is only as important as the height of a jump and the distance that can be fallen. In a wildly productive society that has achieved exponential increases in productive capacity through technological and work process innovations, the last twenty years have seen housing costs increase dramatically, the average workweek grow by 20 to 30 percent, job security disappear, real wages drop, and the employment market tighten. In addition to all these problems facing all working Americans, the eight years under Clinton saw the United States imprison more people than during any period in the nation’s history. Only contemporary postcommunist Russia, with its dying industrial economy, imprisons as many people per capita.

Despite eight years of America’s greatest economic boom, none of these are signs of social health for the nearly two hundred and fifty million ordinary citizens who comprise the non-Other America. But these developments have been particularly severe for the fifty-plus million Americans at the lower ranges of the wage and skill hierarchy, who remain as poor and miserable as when Michael Harrington wrote his book about them. Though the declining safety net was a problem for most of my informants, it was only one of the aspect of the bigger problem: the rising bar that they were unable to successfully jump.’

Marcus states that the various solutions to America’s homeless problem failed because of the ‘cultures of poverty’ view of the problem: that poverty was created by particular individuals, who lacked the moral values and industrious attitudes of the rest of the population, and who therefore were profoundly Other, and the creators of their own misery. He sees this view of the origins of poverty as similar to Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that ‘there is no society, only people’. He states of this view, that began with Michael Harrington’s The Other America that

‘Harrington and those who came after allowed that social policy was ultimately the institution for fine-tuning problems in the distribution of resources. However, their unrelenting focus on problematic groups rather than the overall social concerns facing a modern citizenry represented, at best, a progressive era model of “the poor” as loss leaders for proactive social policy. In its more common pedestrian form, it represented a positivist particularism that completely failed to view the parts as a product of the whole, blaming the pinky finger for being small, rather than identifying the hand as determining the morphology and function of the pinky or blaming the Black family for being dysfunctional rather than American kinship for producing the Black family. Such functionalist and particularist logic has proven a distraction from discussions of how America is coping with the challenges of overall social life.

When social policy is based on this particularist individuated model for the obligations and entitlements of citizenship it inevitably fails. This is because it assumes exactly what needs to be demonstrated: that the challenges being faced by the individual or group of individuals are the result of individual differences of culture, history, temperament, and the like, and not the result of being an identifiable part of a social organism. Solutions, even generous ones like the McKinney Homeless Act [this was the act that voted a billion dollars to providing shelter for the homeless] that do not consider the nature of the organism that produced a sick part, but only focus on the section deemed pathological, inevitably involve a form of social excision that is at best provisional.’

As a result, rather than identifying the economic and social factors behind the housing crisis, asking what went wrong so that a prosperous city with a surplus of affordable housing suddenly experienced a massive increase in visible homelessness, scholars instead studied the homeless themselves as an ethnic group that somehow created the problem through its cultural difference. The homeless are homeless because society has become increasingly competitive. People are being forced to jump higher and higher simply to survive. And those at the bottom simply do not have the economic, social or psychological resources. He also states that in addition to the growth and optimism experienced during the Clinton boom years, when the party of the New Deal/ Great Society anti-poverty bureaucracy once again occupied the White House, another factor contributing to the massive lack of interest in homelessness is the War on Terror.

‘The optimism and complacency of the Clinton years that hid vast seas of unvocalized misery among overworked, underpaid working-class people in post-Reganite America has given way to the ultimate silencing: the endless war on terror. However, the bar remains high, the speciation of America is firmly embedded, and the extent of planning for a rainy day is massive growth in police forces and prisons throughout the United States. The crisis remains well managed, but the future is not bright.’

Marcus suggests that the poor and homeless are social barometers measuring the problems experienced in society by Americans generally

‘They measure the amount of competition, the level of functioning that is necessary to survive, the displacement of those who must labor to live, and the degree of comfort and security that we can claim for our own lives. If they are drowning from the high price of housing, declining real wages, rising costs for education, declining public health, and the revival of nineteenth century diseases, then the rest of us are probably “up to our necks in it”‘.

American Model Producing Global ‘Race to the Bottom’ for Workers and the Poor

He suggests that instead of using Durkheimian functionalism, scholars should instead adopt a Marxian approach to examine the growth of policies by nations around the world intended to make their economies more competitive by modelling them on that of America. The result is a race to the bottom for wages, standards of living, and the overall quality of life. With its advanced, massively productive economy, America could, however, become a global leader in the opposite direction and reverse this three-decade trend for worse wages and working conditions.

Conclusion: the Lessons for Britain

Although some of the issues Marcus tackles are unique to America, much of the book is immediately relevant over this side of the Atlantic as well. Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives took over Harrington’s ‘cultures of poverty’, and as The Void, Another Angry Voice, Mike over at Vox Political, and many, many other left-wing bloggers have shown, the Coalition’s unemployment policies are based on blaming the poor and jobless for their problems. Hence the pretext for workfare, the various courses the unemployed are placed on, and the sanctions system: they’re simply devices for inculcating the correct values of industriousness in the workforce, just as Victorian paternalists worried about raising the poor out of poverty through getting them to accept the same values. The same attitudes are screamed every day from right-wing rags like the Daily Mail and the Sunday Express, and TV documentaries on the unemployed like Benefits Street.

The British Black Family and Chavs

The chapter on the misinterpretation of the dysfunctional structure of the Black family in America in also relevant here. Black activists in Britain are also worried about the greater incidence of breakdowns amongst Black families on this side of the Atlantic. One explanation for the general poor performance of Black boys at school and their greater involvement in crime and gang culture is that, due to the breakdown of their families, many boys simply don’t see their fathers, and so don’t have positive role models in a caring dad.

This patterns also extends outside the Black community to the White lumpenproletariat, now demonised as ‘chavs’. There’s similarly a pattern of broken homes, poor educational attainment, violence and criminality amongst the boys here. And this is similarly ethnicised as the result of a distinct, ‘chav’ culture, rather than the result of a variety of social and economic pressures permeating society generally. And if we’re talking about cultures of recreational violence, then historically the upper classes have also enthusiastically taken their part. In 18th century France there was a group of aristocratic youths, who described themselves as ‘les Rosbifs’. They consciously modelled themselves on the boorish behaviour of the English country squires, and so swaggered around swearing a lot and sported cudgels, which they used to beat up members of the lower orders. Oh what fun! As sociologists and historians studying the history of such youth cultures have said, there really is no difference between these and the mods and rockers, who used regularly used to beat each other senseless down in Weston during Bank Holidays when I was a teenager. These days it’s all rather more genteel. They simply join the Assassin’s Club at Oxford, and wreck restaurants.

The Benefits Cap Blocking an Escape from Poverty and Homelessness

The description of the problems of the homeless in trying to get out of poverty and into accommodation, and failing due to the cap on their benefits, is also immediately recognisable over this side of the Atlantic. The Tories are capping Housing Benefit here as part of their scheme that people on benefits shouldn’t be wealthier than those in work. The result of this is similarly going to be increased homelessness and further geographical isolation, as people are forced to move away from high-rent areas, especially in London. Not that this’ll bother Cameron, Osborne and the rest of the Bullingdon thugs. As the architecture of the new apartment blocks shows, they really don’t want to have to look at the poor. These have a separate entrances for the rich Chinese at whom they’re aimed, and the rest of us plebs, who may well include working and lower middle class Chinese Brits, who’ve been here for generations but lack the massive spondoolicks of the new, global elite.

Solidarity between Squatters, the Radical Left and Ordinary Citizens in NYC and Bristol

As for the politics of squatting, and the need for anarchists and radical activists tackling this issue, there are also lessons for Britain here as well from the experience of New York in the 1980s and 1990s. Johnny Void over at his blog strongly supports squatting amongst other forms of anarchist activism. He has pointed out on his blog that despite the scare stories run by the press about ordinary people coming back from holiday to find their house or garden shed has been taken over by squatters, this in fact has been relatively rare. Most of the squatting has been the occupation of abandoned buildings. I’ve put up on this blog a video from Youtube of homeless activists in Bristol, including a group of homeless squatters, who’ve taken over a disused building in Stokes Croft. They too were facing eviction, despite the fact that the place has been abandoned for forty years.

The issue of gentrification and the eviction of poorer, particularly Black residents, in favour of far more affluent tenants is a very hot issue here as well. A few years ago there were riots in Stokes Croft against Tescos, which had just opened another branch in that ward. The people there feared that it would force out of business local shops, and so reacted to defend their community businesses from the commercial giant. The New York experience shows that it is possible to get ordinary residents to support squatters, anarchists and other left-wing radical groups simply through a common concern for the same issues – in this case homelessness – and by being good neighbours.

Poverty and Homelessness a Problem for Society Generally Across the Globe Thanks to the ‘American Model’

Like America also, many of the poor in Britain are actually those in work, who have also seen their wages decline in real terms, despite recent lies by the Coalition, and are finding themselves having to work longer hours. The European Round Table of Industrialists, at the heart of EU’s campaign for integration, is behind much of this on this side of the Atlantic. Regardless of our different political cultures, we Europeans, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, from the North Sea to the shores of the Baltic, have to work ourselves to death to compete with the Developing World. And as Greg Palast has shown in his book, Armed Madhouse, the result of this in the Developing World is that they have lowered their wages and raised working hours to truly horrific levels in response. Well, if nothing else, it shows that Marx was right in his view that working people across the globe have to unite to combat the problems of capitalism. ‘It was the bourgeoisie who shot down the Great Wall of China’, he says in the Communist Manifesto. Hence the slogan, ‘Workingmen of all countries, Unite!’ Globalisation had meant the increased exploitation of ordinary people across the world. It’s a global problem that needs to be stopped now. We can start by throwing out three decades of Thatcherism and the culture of Neo-Liberalism.

Disappointment and Exploitation in Salvation Army Workfare for the American Homeless

January 30, 2014

Among the various charities, businesses and other organisations, who have attracted bitter criticism for their support and participation in the workfare programme is the Salvation Army. Johnny Void has extensively blogged about it, and encouraged others to criticise and write letters of complaint about the Sally Ann’s involvement in this form of participation. Anthony Marcus also briefly mentions the experience of one of his informants’ experience of doing voluntary work for the Salvation Army in New York in his book, Where Have All the Homeless Gone. I have blogged about the book before, and intend to write a full review of the book after I’ve finished reading it. Marcus was an anthropologist who did his Ph.D. research for a programme intended to aid the homeless in the Big Apple from 1989 to 1994.

One of the obstacles facing the homeless men Marcus studied was the way the financial restrictions placed on the amount of money homeless people collecting SSI, the welfare benefit given to them, prevented them from getting a properly paid job that would enable them to move out of the homeless shelters and not-for-profit transient housing into proper accommodation. The homeless in shelters received $850 in SSI per month. Of this, $700 was deducted to pay for their lodging, supervision and anti-psychotic medication given to those with mental health problems. This left them with about $100 per month spare cash, which was given to them in small sums as spending money. The amount of SSI they received automatically dropped to $508 a month, which would hardly cover rent. Furthermore, those on SSI could not earn more than $74 a week. Marcus notes how this system prevented many of the most optimistic and enterprising homeless men from finding an outside job. The moment they did find one that would allow them the chance of finding a home, the SSI was withdrawn, and they found they could no longer support themselves. As a result, they usually found themselves back in the shelter. The care workers employed to help them therefore did their best to frustrate their attempts to find outside work, in order to prevent them losing their SSI and their place in the shelter or not-for-profit housing. Marcus states that his ‘informants who followed the programs laid out for them by the workers at their residences languished in make-work programs, dead-end jobs, and piecework provided by voluntary agencies at significantly less than the minimum wage.’ (p.26). This was despite the fact that many of his informants took educational courses provided by City College in order to improve their chances of getting a rewarding career. These included a man, who was studying mechanical drawing in order to fulfil his ambition of becoming an architect. Others studied, computers and even history.

One of these ambitious men interviewed by Marcus, was Eugene, a Black American. He decided to move to one of the homeless residences run by the Salvation Army because he had been impressed by what he’d heard about their programme to get people back into work. After a a month or so living and working for them, Eugene became bitterly disillusioned. Their work programme did not live up to his expectations, and in practised consisted of him working in their stores for a pittance. He became so disgusted with them, that eventually he was thrown out for purloining their stock and selling it cheaply under the counter. Marcus writes

‘There were employment programs at the shelter that paid pennies per hour, but most of my informants avoided such low-paid and humiliating work in favour of day labor as a security guard. However, I had two close informants who were involved in a similar program at a Salvation Army residence. Eugene, an African American man in his 30s, had chosen the Salvation Army over several other facilities due to its work socialization program. He had heard about the importance of employment training to their program and told me that he would, “rather be getting some real work experience than sitting with a bunch of mental patients learning how to make friends or practice proper hygiene.” Although their facilities were older and less pleasant than the newly renovated “small not-for-profits” as he put it, “if I put in six months working in one of their stores, I ought to be able to get a real job somewhere and move out pretty quick.”

My first visit to interview Gene was about three weeks after his placement. They had not yet given him a job, but they were paying him 17 cents an hour to mop floors in the residence and had promised him that within the month they would find him a real job working in one of the thrift stores. He was not very happy with the housing, which was a rodent and bug-infested aging flophouse on the Bowery that the Salvation Army had converted into a transitional housing facility, but was optimistic and believed that he was on the way up.

The second visit, a month later, found him still mopping floors and becoming increasingly discouraged at how little his life was improving. As he put it, “I’m not saving any money at 17 cents an hour, I still don’t have a job, and I can’t even afford to go see a movie after work. The shelter was a much better deal.” When they finally moved him to the thrift store after several months, he was not given an actual job, but remained part of their work rehabilitation program and therefore had neither a job description, a job title, nor a minimum wage salary. As he put it, “I’m not a cashier. I’m not an assistant manager. I’m not a sales person. I’m not even an assistant to the assistant janitor. I’m a nigger that pushes a mop and unloads trucks for a couple of dollars a day. I must be some kind of idiot.” he went on to point out that “with my SSI, I am actually paying these crooks $900 a month to give me a seventeen cent an hour job.”….

However, it wasn’t long before Gene was back with his mop at the residence. Caught selling half price merchandise to a young women in front of the Salvation Army, he understood that they would never let him near merchandise again. He believed that there was no way into the formal economy for an uneducated and somewhat disreputable looking African American man with a criminal record and few of the social or job skills necessary for success. He used his psychiatric diagnosis to get out of the work training program and began to secretly disappear from the residence for freelance work. The residence was supposed to be as “supportive” and restrictive as the R.C.C.A. [an intensively supervised residence for the homeless on 48th Street and 10th Avenue in Manhattan], but there was virtually no paid staff to enforce the rules of the treatment programs. My other informant at this facility had recruited him to unload trucks on the street behind the residence for a Chinese store owner. The $5 an hour off the books wage was far superior to the work training program’s 17 cents an hour but it was a situation that would never enable him to get his own housing.’ (pp. 86-7).

I apologise for not censoring the ‘N’ word, but I felt that I needed to follow the text exactly. The term clearly expresses the disparaging racial attitude Eugen felt the Salvation Army had for him as a poor, Black unskilled labourer.

Now obviously, this is an American case, reflecting conditions in New York at the time. However, much of this is recognisably similar to the situation facing many of the unemployed in Cameron’s Britain, regardless of whether they are homeless or not. I’ve met people on my course, who are in a similar position to those homeless Americans, who are stuck in pointless, dead-end jobs in order to keep their benefit. This particular person is disabled and on benefit. The jobcentre is pressuring him to find a job he could do. However, he is afraid that if he did find one, signed off benefit, and then found that in fact he could not do the job, he would not be able to get back on benefit as he had declared himself fit for work.

I am also sure that there are probably others, stuck in a similar situation to the American homeless through the government’s restrictions on earnings from benefits, as part of their campaign to make sure that the ‘strivers’ in work don’t feel resentful and humiliated by the unemployed earning more than them.

As for the Salvation Army and its ‘work socialisation’ schemes, this really does seem merely to be a way of getting cheap labour. As Johnny Void has pointed out too many times, it’s exploitation. And the same thing is happening over here in their support for workfare. If the Sally Ann really is serious about helping the homeless, they should withdraw from the workfare programme. If they do wish to be part of national schemes encouraging the unemployed to perform voluntary work in their stores in preparation for finding real work, then this should be accompanied by real initiatives to get them a job, such as paid work placements. Even an increase in their Jobseekers’ allowance would be good, as it should reward their initiative in trying to find some kind of work rather than simply being a source of cheap labour. Unfortunately, I can’t see this occurring, as the current system seems designed merely to provide big business with a cheap, demoralised and so cowed workforce, thinly disguised as an attempt to tackle unemployment.

The Face of 19th Century Serfdom: Coming Back to a Supermarket Near You

January 8, 2014

Serf Work

19th Century Picture of Russian Serfs at Work. This is the real face of slavery – toil, degradation and despair, not the cheerful optimism the Prince’s Trust promise.

I’ve blogged and reblogged articles by myself and others, such as the redoubtable Johnny Void, pointing out that workfare constitutes and form of 21st century slavery. Earlier this week I reblogged a piece by Mr Void, in which he reports and attacks the Prince’s Trust for recommending an expansion of the workfare programme to combat the feelings of utter, suicidal hopeless felt by a third of the nation’s young jobless. The Prince’s Trust appears to believe that this would work on the grounds that actually performing some kind of work can allow a person to feel valued and that their life is worthwhile, even when they’re not paid. The great 19th century artist and essayist, William Ruskin, recognised that if work was interesting, worthwhile and enjoyable, then the workers would not care quite so much about payment, and tried to act on it. Now this is true. A friend of mine told me that the work he set the mason’s building and decorating his house was so fulfilling, that they willingly worked on it for sometime without payment, simply because the work was so good. There are thousands of people like myself doing voluntary work, not to get paid, but because the work itself is rewarding.

But that’s the point: it has to be rewarding. Otherwise, it really is another form of slavery. Ruskin recognised this, and his remarks were not to advocate unpaid labour and the exploitation of workers, but to demand their better treatment and that work should be made more interesting, pleasing and fulfilling as part of a general criticism of the horrors of 19th century capitalism.

The workfare embraced and extolled by the Prince’s Trust is the complete, absolute opposite of this. Those benefit claimants wishing to do some kind of meaningful, fulfilling voluntary work have been met with hostility and sanctions by the Jobcentre. One of the best-known examples of this was the Geology graduate, who was forced to take court action after the Jobcentre tried to stop her working in a museum and send her stacking shelves in the local supermarket instead. I’ve encountered exactly the same attitude from Jobcentre staff in Bristol. This is not the fulfilling, aesthetically and spiritually uplifting labour envisaged by Ruskin, but simply another form of serfdom in which the individual is made to labour without payment for the profit of the immensely rich. The picture at the top of this post shows the reality of such serfdom in 19th century Russia. It was back-breaking toil, in conditions of grinding poverty, without any hope of release or improvement. And this isn’t by any means the only painting to show similar scenes of poverty and despair amongst Russia’s immense population of the unfree.

Barge Haulers Volga

Barge-Haulers of the Volga, by the great Russian artist Ilya Repin, showing the kind of hopelessness coming back under workfare.

One of the classic depictions of 19th century Russian slavery is the picture, ‘Barge-Haulers of the Volga’. This shows a line of ragged men, ranging from teenage boys to the old and elderly, harnessed together to pull a ship up the Volga river, simply by brute force like horses pulling barges in Britain. Their eyes are dead, their faces devoid of all hope. This, the painter says, is all they can look forward to in life – just more toil, endless, meaningless, degrading toil, from youth to death. I’ve no doubt that it was the horrific conditions endured by so many serfs that is responsible for the country’s severe alcohol problem. There’s a Russian saying about money: too much for bread, not enough for shoes, just right for vodka! When poverty is so great that even some items of clothing are unaffordable, and the quality of life and work so poor and degrading, people automatically turn to drink and drugs for some kind of release. It was the same with the factory slaves here in Britain in the 19th century, when the labouring poor sought oblivion in cheap gin. If workfare continues to expand, you’ll see the same faces and expressions amongst the workfare slaves people stacking shelves as on the 19th century Russian serfs: crushed, dead-eyed individuals from whom any hope has been robbed.

There are other similarities between 19th century Russian serfdom and today’s workfare. Although serfs comprised the overwhelming mass of the country’s peasant population, they were also used in factories and mines. Even after they were officially liberated by Alexander II, 19th century Russian employers continued to look upon their workers as serfs, free in name only. I can remember being taught at College when studying the causes of the Russian Revolution that in the 19th and first years of the 20th century, the Russian factory masters actually told the workers ‘We own you!’ And to make it absolutely clear that this is not propaganda, the lecturer himself made very clear that he wasn’t a Communist, and if he, by some weird accident he did end up in a Marxist party, he would soon be thrown out. There’s a technical distinction between serfdom and slavery. The serf is tied to the soil, and so technically cannot be removed from the estate on which he or she is settled. The slave, however, is his master’s personally property, and so can be taken anywhere his master wishes. It’s a fine distinction which was circumvented and ignored in Russia. Serfs could be and were bought and sold between different members of the aristocracy. This is shown in the picture below. Entitled, ‘The Bargain’, it shows the cheap sale of a serf to a noble. Now there are private companies involved in promoting the government’s workfare programme, such as, unfortunately, the Salvation Army, who clearly see it as a way of acquiring unwaged labour, exactly like the noble shown in the picture.

Serf Bargain

The Bargain: A 19th century Russian painting depicting the cheap sale of a serf. A 21st Century equivalent would be a company or charity bidding for a workfare contract. Then and now, workers are being bought and sold without their consent.

There is one difference between 19th century Russian serfdom and its early 21st century equivalent. In Russia artists were actively involved in showing the reality of poverty, feudalism and exploitation. One of that nation’s artistic movements was The Wanderers. They were so called because they moved from town to town with their paintings, which showed the poverty and degradation endured by the country’s working population. It was a form of agit-prop avant le parole. The 20th century equivalent is some ways were the social realist documentary makers and dramatists, like Ken Loach and others, who used film as a way of highlighting contemporary British social problems. I’ve no doubt there are still some like that out there, but nauseatingly they appear to have been replaced by squalid Right-wing propagandists determined to portray those on benefits as feckless, parasitical scroungers. I’ve reblogged a piece from the Oprichnik of the Oprichnik Rising website, whose friend was so misrepresented on one of the BBC’s programmes. This week the Tory linked Love Productions broadcast a documentary, Benefits Street, which was similarly biased. Tom Pride has extensively covered it, and the threats of violence it generated from Right-wing outraged viewers to his disgust over at Pride’s Purge. We need someone like The Wanderers in this country, to expose the growing workfare serfdom here.

Once upon a time Russian revolutionaries and intellectuals, like Turgenev, looked at their country and asked ‘Who can be happy in Russia?’ With the return of serfdom in the guise of workfare to Britain, we can turn the question round, and ask ‘Who can be happy in Britain?’