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13 August 2014

The meaning of work for the dole

For every advertised job vacancy in Australia, there are around eight people looking for work, according to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Roy Morgan Research.

Yet all we seem to hear from the government are arguments about the need to restrict the number of people receiving the dole and to make them work harder to keep it once they get it – more appointments with the private “job services providers”, often ridiculous educational modules, more job applications, obligatory “training” and the now expanding work for the dole scheme.

All of this usually is justified with reference to a social contract. An individual fulfilling their terms of this “mutual obligation” can expect to live on a baseline $36.46 per day. The government calls this a “Newstart”.

Some say that punitive clauses in general and work for the dole in particular don’t work. That’s true if we accept at face value the government’s rationale: to give people real world work experience and to encourage the so-called “voluntarily unemployed” to find a job. But the onerous and shifting “mutual obligation” duties, combined with the paltry payments, serve other purposes.

One is the creation of incentives. Not incentives to work, as the government claims, but to surrender entitlements. This is one of the more insidious ways that the government tries to undermine social welfare. For all the sweet talk about building people up through meaningful tasks and training, “mutual obligation” is an exercise in shattering people’s confidence. The assignments can vary from the absurd to the demeaning, and the process is abundantly patronising, as anyone who has gone through the wringer can attest. It helps account, in whatever small way, for the gulf between the number of unemployed looking for work (more than 1.3 million people) and the number of people actually receiving unemployment payments (740,000).

Another purpose is social engineering. Lowering people’s evaluations of their worth reinforces the message that there are numerous undeserving poor, living on “benefits” provided by the more industrious in our midst. That’s not only about shaming people off the dole, but shaping people’s expectations (i.e. we should expect very little from government) and altering the way we view our relationship to society.

Here we make much of the neoliberal transformation of the last decades. We’re apt to think of market relations dominating almost every sphere of existence. That’s true, but there’s more to it. Many of the early neoliberals recognised that “the market” is not a spontaneous institution; rather, it is a set of fragile relationships dependent on institutional support. German theoretical pioneers of the 1930s and 1940s envisaged a market free in its internal operations, yet constructed and legally ordered by a powerful state (they were named “ordoliberals” because of their rejection of laissez faire in favour of order). The more radical proponents of this mission wanted, as one French theorist put it 35 years ago, “a general regulation of society by the market”.

For the neoliberal project more generally, the state is to both construct and conform to the market. There is, in this respect, no great contradiction between the “free market” advocacy of politicians and the expansion of government interference to enforce market-style relations throughout society. Capitalists also are mostly in favour of state interventions that promote economic competition and undermine coercive monopolies (usually trade unions).

So government money in the form of the lucrative contracts to the job services providers, incentive payments both to them and to businesses that hire certain categories of unemployed (usually “long term” or “older”), cheap labour provided by the work for the dole scheme – none of this is simply or narrowly about hypocritical cronyism; it is part of reshaping service provision, and with it human relationships and world views, along corporate lines.

An unemployed person’s obligations to Centrelink fit into this project of enforcement. We are not to be brothers and sisters with common humanity, much less workers forging a collective identity and displaying solidarity. At the dole office, as in life, we are each on our own, nothing but a collection of attributes carefully crafted into a CV, complemented with wholesome hobbies, to be put out for hire and judged on the ability to provide a return on investment.

There are penalties for “non-compliance” with this regime, which the government justifies with phrases such as “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” But that message is betrayed by the fact that it never applies to the rich.

In reality the purpose of “mutual obligation” is to deprive people of their human qualities; to establish that they are valuable only if they are useful to capital.