In defence of welfare and the right to not work

29 Aug 2015



On Thursday, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) released a long-awaited report, which detailed the amount of people who have died as a result of the measures imposed by the government’s ‘work capability assessments.’ The report revealed that, on average, 90 people per month had died after being declared ‘fit for work’, a label which resulted in the withdrawal of their benefits. Shocking stories have emerged in the months and years running up to the release of this report, including reprehensible examples of disabled and ill members of our society unable to keep medication refrigerated due to the cessation of welfare payments, which they relied on to keep the electric going.


The most obvious response to this news can probably be found from any left-leaning columnist, and many on the right too. The government’s welfare cuts have become fatally drastic. Indeed, the evidence is before us that, as a result of government action taken in the interest of cutting the welfare budget, people have lost their lives. This is a damning indictment of the work that the DWP is doing, and Ian Duncan Smith must answer for these deaths.


Yet, deeper analysis brings forth some harrowing truths. Indeed, a large portion of the electorate must come to terms with the fact that the Conservative government has received a mandate for these deaths from the British people themselves. Drastic cuts to welfare formed part of a pre-election rhetoric against the lazy classes that many were all too enthusiastic to vote for.


The 2015 General Election was fought on a battleground of fear. It was an election to decide whether Britain should seek a referendum on Europe, driven largely by the fear that migrants are systematically plundering the country of its resources. It was an election to decide whether to extend the use of austerity measures and precarious employment, prompted by the fear of ending up like the lazy Greeks should we not tighten our belts. And, as a result, it was an election to decide whether welfare provisions should be cut across the board, due to the fear that, in these times of austerity, welfare recipients will still feel the need to take all they can from the taxpayers’ pocket.


All this was ensconced in a simple message: those who work hard will survive. But it is not the purpose of this commentary to suggest that the government is in the business of killing people. Moreover, I am also not so brazen as to suggest that the British electorate condones the death of those on welfare. What lies behind the mandate of the current government to slash welfare is not a simple hatred of Britain’s ‘underclass’. Rather, it is a socio-political apparatus that implies that the abstention from work is the most heinous of crimes. In the same way that those who do not keep up trends in modern consumer culture are left behind in all walks of life, those who do not prescribe to the ethics of production through the continued toil of a full-time job (voluntarily or otherwise), are condemned to an alienation so severe, that it can be fatal.


The real reason that these deaths occurred is because there exists no space within our society for these individuals to live. What space exists for the modern British citizen not to work, besides retirement (granted only after a lifetime’s service to productivity)? No political niche exists for the non-worker. There just aren’t enough rights to go around.


Withdrawal from work processes is always met with the most insidious opposition. Such derision reveals itself through hate crimes against disabled people, smear campaigns against single mothers, and the dread of benefit exploitation by the immigrant masses; all groups who are assumed to demand more of the state than anyone else. This ensures an unequivocal message runs throughout our society; that unproductiveness, for whatever reason, is not an option.


In the first instance, it is clear that welfare must be entirely re-imagined. Cuts to the services of the most vulnerable are violating the most fundamental rights of these people. Individuals are treated as productive agents rather than citizens, requiring nothing more than a good kick to get them back into work. Sadly, the mandate for the continuation of this treatment has already been granted for the next five years, so one should expect more stories like the ones that have emanated this week in the near future.


But the real answer to this problem is not merely the election of strong opposition in Parliament. Even if Jeremy Corbyn were to take the helm of the Labour Party, these problems would be far from over. What needs to be established is a society that chooses not to organise itself around the sanctity of work. We need to abolish the notion that a life lost at work is more honourable than one lived outside of it. Opposition movements everywhere must shift the focus of their resistance, so as to fundamentally restructure the apparatus of society, never allowing a mandate like this to fall into the hands of any government again.


In short, we must carve out the political space to abstain from work, and be safe in the knowledge that socio-political rights of all individuals are protected within it.


“For workers, it is no longer a question freeing themselves within work, putting themselves in control of work, or seizing power within the framework of their work. The point now is to free oneself from work by rejecting its nature, content, necessity and modalities.” – André Gorz

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