Socialist Worker

Class and the benefits system

The second of our three columns looks at the ruling class’s attitude to welfare

Issue No. 2296

Last week we looked at how unemployment is built into capitalism. The system produces a “reserve army of labour”—a pool of jobless workers—and plays them off against those with jobs to drive down wages for everyone.

But there are limits to the extent to which capitalism can do this. One is that the workforce has to be fit enough to work—or fight wars—when required to by the ruling class.

The earliest reforms in workers’ conditions were driven by these concerns.

The foundations of today’s healthcare and benefits systems lie in the final years of the 19th century, when the ruling class found that workers were too malnourished to be effective soldiers in the Boer War.

But the other limits to capitalism’s drive to impoverish us lie on our side. The fact that the ruling class has to provide a minimal amount of welfare for the masses opens up a space for workers—employed and unemployed—to fight for higher standards of healthcare, benefits, housing and so on.

An example of this is the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM), which was set up by Communist Party activists in the 1920s in response to rising levels of joblessness.

It led a series of militant marches and protests to defend the unemployed during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

This activism around the unemployed was part of the wider workers’ movement and not separate from it.

Battles over issues such as means testing highlight the contradictions of the ruling class attitude to welfare provision.

If levels of provision are too low the masses become unfit for work—or prone to revolt. But if they are too high, from the capitalists’ point of view, they can act as a disincentive to enter the drudgery of paid employment.

This is why successive governments have blown hot and cold over the welfare state.

Benefits are implemented through an expensive bureaucracy that tries to divide and classify workers as “deserving” or “undeserving”.


In recent years these age-old arguments have taken a new twist. From the early 1990s onwards right wingers began arguing that the benefits system generated a subculture of people who lived their lives around it—a so called “welfare underclass”.

This rhetoric about “benefits dependency” enable the right to present attacks on the welfare system as somehow helping those who are dependent upon it.

It gives a veneer of “compassion” to changes in welfare that would otherwise be rightly seen as penny-pinching from the poorest in society.

The current Tory government is heavily influenced by these ideas.

Iain Duncan Smith, the secretary of state for work and pensions, wrote last year that “our welfare system has created an underclass where generation after generation have no work and no prospects”. He added that “a life on benefits will no longer be an option” under his proposed changes.

A series of myths underlie these arguments.

For starters it is conditions in the wider economy that drive people onto benefits. The internal mechanics of how benefits are structured have relatively little effect.

The current rise in welfare spending is a direct effect of the recession that gripped Britain in the wake of the financial crisis starting in 2007.

Poverty affects large swathes of this population—those out of work and those on low wages.

The overall picture is one where most people go in and out of work and have to rely on benefits for short periods of time. There is no fixed “underclass” permanently on benefits.

Understanding the working class this way—in terms of its economic role and position, rather than through supposed cultural differences—helps us grasp the fundamental common interests that unite it against the ruling class.

The working class makes up the majority of people in Britain. It is in the interests of all workers to defend the welfare system—and to reject arguments that pit a “respectable” working class against those on benefits.

But this overall picture of the working class raises another question. Many people—especially the young—find themselves working in a variety of low-paid casualised jobs, hopping from one short term contract to the next.

Does this pattern form a new kind of “precarious” employment that is fundamentally different to traditional work? Our third and final column will examine this issue.

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