05 June 2012

Workfare and Slavery

Argument broke out on twitter over whether referring to workfare as slavery was helpful, productive or downright offensive. So I want to say all in one place why it's so difficult to discuss.

Firstly, metaphor:
This is not a question of metaphors. Metaphor is calling your boss, who pays your wages and leaves the office door unlocked, a slave-driver. The argument over workfare is iffy precisely because it moves beyond metaphor, precisely because calling workfare slavery can be understood as a straightforward statement. The problem isn't that it's a bad metaphor, it's that it's too close to being true to stay in the safe world of metaphors and irony. Slave-driving bosses are not real slave-drivers and nobody who says so really thinks so. Workfare slaves might just be slaves, depending on your definition, and we have to be more careful.

Secondly, the offensiveness:
While this is an important thing to bear in mind if you don't want to fuck up on the intersectionality front, and possibly more important than pedantic discussions over what, exactly, slavery is, avoiding offensiveness does, necessarily, require a good, solid definition of slavery. The second-to-last thing we want is to tell real slaves or their descendants that something tiny by comparison is "slavery". But the last thing we want is to tell real slaves or their descendants that no, that wasn't real slavery.

This post does a very good job of outlining just a few types of slavery, and there are a great many more - including the other most famous example. Many of our ideas about what "real" slavery is don't always fit with what we'd use the word for. Indentured labourers are not routinely whipped. The slaves of the classical era were not enslaved along racial lines. Forced labourers in gulags and concentration camps were neither owned nor sold. Nor is using past forms of slavery to understand present conditions exclusive to white, free-born liberals.

I'm not willing to tell Paul Robeson that no, that slavery wasn't the same and it's offensive of him to say so. Comparing real slavery to real slavery is clearly not offensive. What's crass and offensive is comparing real slavery to unreal slavery. So to argue that a comparison is offensive, you need a definition of "real" slavery that excludes at least one form of coerced, unpaid labour. And you need to be able to defend both your definition and that exclusion. Slavery is a broad category, and my definition is fuzzy round the edges. The idea of being offended because someone else's definition is broader and fuzzier or doesn't exclude enough is one that makes me quite uncomfortable.

Finally, pragmatism:
There are two ways to look at workfare in relation to capitalism. You can see it as an anomaly, or you can see it as business as usual. As far as I'm concerned, it's both. While workfare is not at odds with how capitalism usually behaves, it's very much at odds with what capitalism likes to believe about itself. Capitalism doesn't like to think of itself as coercive or exploitative. Capitalism likes to think of itself as paying everybody as much as they earn, as individual freedom, as a rising tide lifting all boats and as the only alternative to slavery/serfdom/gulags. And in order to function, capitalism has to believe its own bullshit.

There are two ways to argue against unpaid workers sleeping under bridges. We can fight it on capitalism's terms, or on our own. Clearly we don't want to argue that it's doing capitalism wrong, because that implies we could just do capitalism right and it'd be ok. But we also don't want to argue that this is just what capitalism is, because that implies capitalism is honest or consistent. We can, and should, argue with capitalism on its own terms at the same time as arguing on ours. Workfare is one of many examples where capitalism refuses to abide by its own values when there's profit to be had, because this is how the profit motive works. Pointing out cheating is good, pointing out that the game is rigged is better, but the best thing to point out is that capitalism rigged the game, lied about the rules, cheated anyway, and will play like this every time.

We're in uncharted territory with workfare. It's not exactly slavery as we'd normally understand the word, but then nor are most forms of slavery, past and present. It's also not capitalism's standard way of exploiting the proletariat, but then it's not a surprising change of tack either. History won't give us any precise terms for it, but it'll give us some vaguely useful ones. Whether workfare is slavery depends an awful lot on where you draw the line for slavery. It's also sort of irrelevant. Workfare is capitalism drifting worryingly close to that line, in a typical breach of its own professed values, and with worryingly little embarrassment about any of it.