The Expansion of Public Services Versus a Basic Income, Part Two: How the Social-democratic Left Ignore the Oppressive Nature of Public Services: Part Two: Oppressive Welfare Services

Introduction 

This is a continuation of two previous posts (see A Basic Income Versus the Expansion of Public Services? Part One: Critique of the Social-democratic Idea that the Expansion of Public Services is Socialist and The Expansion of Public Services Versus a Basic Income, Part Two: How the Social-democratic Left Ignore the Oppressive Nature of Public Services: Part One: Oppressive Educational Services), which critically analyses Simran Dhunna’s and David Bush’s article that criticizes moves towards a universal basic income (see https://springmag.ca/against-the-market-we-can-do-better-than-basic-income).

In my previous post, I endeavoured to show that Dhunna’s and Bush’s aim of “affirm[ing] the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure” by calling for an expansion of public services as a solution is inadequate because they fail to consider the oppressive nature of public services in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers. Specifically, I looked at how educational services are oppressive by imposing grades or marks on students and by imposing a curriculum that often has little meaning for students.

In this post, I look at how welfare services are oppressive.

Oppressive Welfare Services

Public services include welfare services in various forms, such as child welfare, social assistance (called welfare when I was young) and unemployment insurance (now euphemistically called “employment insurance” in Canada). Related to educational services in some ways since children are often involved, do welfare services provide “”publicly owned infrastructure” and “publicly operated infrastructure?” Is there democracy within the provision of welfare services? Or is “publicly operated infrastructure” an oppressive infrastructure?

From Don Lash (2017), “When the Welfare People Come”: Race and Class in the Child Protection System:

This theory is generally applicable to child welfare workers. Workers, whether investigators, caseworkers, or lawyers, operate with some discretion in forming judgments, albeit with layers of management oversight and final say on decisions, and even greater discretion over the way in which a client is treated. Their work also has an enormous potential impact on their clients. Finally, they are accountable to managers for datadriven outcomes, to judges, to the pressures of media attention, and to countless other “stakeholders” with more influence than the parents and families with whom they work. Because of the pressure of caseloads and paperwork requirements, they are also prone to routinization and simplification to manage the work and meet management expectations. Conscientiousness, empathy, and even professional ethics may not always be trumped by the dynamics of street-level bureaucracy, but there will always be a tension that is seldom resolved solely in the interests of the client.

Two child welfare workers who worked for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) describe the position of DCFS social workers. They are nominally given professional discretion to be exercised in the best interest of the children and families to whom they are assigned, but operate under constant pressure to act in the best interest of the department. In a memoir about their work experiences, they wrote:

If CSWs [Certified Social Workers] could speak frankly without fear of retribution, many of
these well-meaning workers who should place the welfare of their case children and/or families
above all else do not feel able to do so. If they felt free to speak the truth, they would say that
they are being made to do whatever they’re told without question or hesitation, and if they do
otherwise, they would find themselves under threat of discipline. They are fully aware that to
resist certain morally questionable directives may mean putting any hopes of advancement or
even their entire careers in jeopardy. They realize that in demonstrating reluctance to go along
with these directives, they may even run the risk of facing trumped-up charges on grounds of
insubordination.

This does not sound very democratic, either from the point of view of the workers or those who receive their services. Why are Dhunna and Bush silent about the oppressive nature of the welfare state? In a society dominated by a class of employers, where civil servants are wage workers, is there not bound to be a conflict between the needs of those who receive the services and those who perform them? After all, civil servants in modern capitalist society are wage workers, and there exists a hierarchy of managers to which front-line workers are subordinate. Dhunna and Bush, however, simply ignore this fact, idealizing instead the modern state’s provision of services.

But the above quote is from a situation in the United States. What of more social-democratic states?

In Sweden, work-for-welfare was introduced in the 1990s. From Katarina Thorén (2008), “Activation Policy in Action” A Street-Level Study of Social Assistance in the Swedish Welfare State, page 5:

…municipal activation policies were introduced in the 1990s in the municipal social services organizations. The Swedish form of activation policies target unemployed social assistance recipients and require them to participate in local activation measures in return for financial support.

Of course, Dunnah and Bush would probably argue that they oppose such work-for-welfare programs. However, since they fail to engage in any way with the fact that there is a market for workers–employed by a class of employers–their opposition is more rhetoric than reality. Why would they oppose such programs? As long as there is a market for workers, there is bound to be a distinction between the “deserving poor” and the “non-deserving poor.” And the deserving poor are those who are willing to work–for an employer. Since Dunnah and Bush do not address the class relation at all in any direct fashion, any criticism they offer against work-for-welfare will only be partial and limited; to be effective, it is necessary to criticize the employer-employee relation as such.

But let us turn to the Swedish case. Do Swedish welfare services, which are “publicly owned infrastructure,” provide “publicly operated infrastructure” in a humane manner? 

In the Swedish case, there was a division of labour between social workers and “activation staff,” or the front-line workers who directly related to welfare “clients.” The activation staff tried to use this division in order to hide the oppressive nature of their own activities. Pages 130-132: 

But activation staff, for their part, admitted that they wanted to be viewed as “nice” and not part of the mandatory requirement process in order to keep a friendly atmosphere at the activation
programs. From a street-level bureaucracy perspective, the activation staff had an incentive, therefore, to conceal the coercive elements of the activation requirements. 

Local Organizational Arrangements and Bureaucratic Responsibilities

In part to limit the tensions with frustrated clients, there was an organizational divide of the formal responsibilities of social workers and activation workers. Clients were told that the social workers were responsible for all formal decisions and activation workers, whom they saw on a daily basis, would merely execute the activation requirements and related services. At the first information
meeting, clients were informed through a power point presentation that:

“WHY ARE YOU HERE? (Statement in Power Point presentation)
… You should not feel that you are forced to go here … participation here is a resource for those how are looking for jobs and receive social assistance … the goal is to be self-sufficient and to say “goodbye” to your social worker … (Commentary from job coach)

JOBBCENTRUM IS AN OFFER! (Statement in Power Point presentation)
… It’s not the staff at Jobbcentrum that decides that you are required to be here, it’s the Stockholm Municipality that has decided that and it’s your social worker that is taking care of all formal decisions. (Commentary from job coach)”

Thus, activation workers presented the activation requirement as an offer and concealed, rather successfully, the mandatory feature of the activation process, which, from a street-level bureaucracy perspective, was important for the activation staff. Clients were thereby encouraged to see activation workers as somehow removed from the formal decision-making. Clients were frequently referred to the social workers whenever they had questions regarding requirements, entitlements, and administration practices, although the activation staff was well informed about the local policy rules. But the right to social assistance was based on the clients’ performance at the activation program. Most clients could see that their first point of inquiry, negotiation, and tension would be with the activation worker who monitored their performance and attitude on a daily basis. The claim
of an organizational divide displaced this overt power held by activation workers, and tried to keep activation workers appearing neutral in an unequal bureaucratic relationship, and this may have only added to client frustrations and tensions within the program. Especially, when they found out that the activation staff reported their program performance to the social workers on a regular basis.

In one case, a client, whose social assistance had been withdrawn after her job coach had reported her as “inactive”, was very upset and told me the following:

“The social worker told me that the job coach had called her to say that I wasn’t active enough at Jobbcentrum and that he was disap-spoke with my job coach and he said that I was going good … why did he do so, he’s “my” job coach and supposed to support me….”

When it became apparent that the job coach had, in fact, reported her performance and thereby becoming a real factor in the decision-making process, the client felt she was not taken seriously and that they “gone behind her back”.

Thus, the organizational arrangement to separate the “exercise of public authority” between the social workers and the activation workers was mainly symbolic since the activation requirement indirectly determined the right to social assistance and activation staff reported clients’ activation performance to the social workers. Similar administrative arrangements have been demonstrated elsewhere.
Carstens (1998) claims that there is an underlying conflict between clients’ interest and organizations’ interest within the activation policy context and masked issues that demonstrate the asymmetric relationships in the activation policy process in Denmark.

Welfare services are anything but democratic–for both those who provide the services and for those who receive them.

The sectarian social-democratic left, of course, will claim that the oppressive nature of state work–for state workers and for citizens who receive those services–is due mainly to the neoliberal policies that currently exist. However, since neoliberalism–privatization of state services, deregulation of financial services, etc.–is only one form of the class power of employers, how any particular form of capitalist government or state can solve the problem of the tension or contradiction between state as both an employer of workers, on the one hand, and defender and supporter of a market for workers for the class of employers, on the other, is beyond me.

Of course, there are a range of possible policies that are better or worse by treating both social workers and those who use their services more or less humanely, but these are modifications around a basic point: As long as there exists a class of employers–both private and public–and a market for workers, there will always be a tension between the needs of those who provide services and those who receive them.

Perhaps the social-democratic left can provide an outline of how “publicly owned infrastructure” and “publicly operated infrastructure” can achieve this without calling into question the class power of employers

Frankly, I doubt that they can. Hence their silence about the issue.

What has been the main purpose of welfare services? There are undoubtedly many purposes, but one of the main purposes has been to reduce the aspirations of workers–as David Graeber (2015) points out in the German case, The Utopia of Rules On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, pages 154-155 :

Even though Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the great mastermind behind the creation of the German
state, allowed his parliament only limited powers, he was confounded by the rapid rise of workers’ parties, and continually worried by the prospect of a Socialist majority, or a possible Paris Commune-style uprising in his new united Germany. His reaction to Socialist electoral success from 1878 was twofold: on · the one hand, to ban the Socialist party, trade unions, and leftist newspapers; on the other, when this proved ineffective (Socialist candidates continued to run, and win, as independents) ,
to create a top-down alternative to the free schools, workers’ associations, friendly societies, libraries, theaters, and the larger process of building socialism from below. This took the form of a program of social insurance (for unemployment, health and disability, etc.), free education, pensions, and so forth-much of it watered-down versions of policies that had been part of the Socialist platform, but in every case, carefully purged of any democratic, participatory elements. In private, at least, he was utterly candid about describing these efforts as a “bribe,” an effort to buy out working-class loyalties to his conservative nationalist project. [note 117, incorrectly numbered 116]. When left-wing regimes did later take power, the template had already been established, and almost invariably, they took the same top-down approach, incorporating locally organized clinics, libraries, mutual banking initiatives, workers’ education centers, and the like into the administrative structure of the state.

Two points are relevant here. Firstly, the purpose of welfare services need not be to enhance workers’ control over their own lives but to limit their capacity of seeking to go beyond the class system of employers. Graeber argues that Bismarck consciously sought to institute welfare services in order to bribe the working class. From Graeber (2015), page 252, note 117:

As he [Otto von Bismarck] put it to an American visitor at the time: “My idea was to bribe the working classes, or shall I say, to win them over, to regard the state as a social institution existing for their sake and interested in their welfare” (cited in William Thomas Stead, On the Eve: A Handbook for the General Election [London: Review of Reviews Publishing, 1892], p. 62). The quote is useful to bear in mind since I find that the general point-that the welfare state was largely created to pay off the working class for fear of their becoming revolutionaries- tends to be met with skepticism, and demands for proof that this was the self-conscious intention of the ruling class. But here we have the very first such effort described by its founder quite explicitly as such.

It would be unfair to Dhunna and Bush to argue that they seek to bribe the working class since they seek to force the provision of welfare services through power emanating from below, of course. However, given that the ruling class has used the provision of welfare services as a means of blunting the demands of workers, it would be necessary to seek means by which to prevent welfare measures from actually blunting workers’ demands. They fail to provide any such means in their article; indeed, they seem to believe that the provision of welfare services by the capitalist state is somehow in itself socialist. They also fail to consider whether the demand for a robust universal basic income could be just such a means from below that could question the power of employers as a class. 

Secondly, the form in which welfare services are provided is top-down–a hierarchy of employees, with little democratic structure within the provision of welfare services. Dhunna and Bush are also silent over this issue.

Oppressive Administration of Welfare Services Results in Fragmentation or Division of Interests of the Public 

I have already referred to my own personal experiences of the oppressive nature of “public services” via their administration (indirectly, in this case, via the courts and a court-ordered assessor (see for example A Worker’s Resistance to the Capitalist Government or State and its Representatives, Part One).

Dhunna and Bush do not address the issue of the administration of the decommodified programs and how such administration creates various “subpublics” that divide people from one another through bureaucratic means. From Michael Kratke (1989), “Does Social Security Create a New Class? On the Restructuring of Social Inequality by Welfare State Arrangements,” in Political Regulation in the “Great Crisis,” pages 285-315, edited by Werner Vath, pages 305-307:

At this point the fragmentation thesis enters. It says that the institutional fragmentation of the social security system, the coexistence of different systems of social insurance and social assistance, and, last not least, the administrative practice of classifying and sub-classifying client groups altogether lead to just as many cleavages among welfare state clients. Take for example the Dutch social security system once again. Its clients are officially put into a whole string of subsystems and categorized accordingly as AOWers, WAOers, WWers, WWVers, RWWers, IOAWers, ZWers, WBPers, ABWers, AWWers and so on. No doubt, European social politics have been and still are obsessed with such classifications of client groups as they were in vogue for centuries. Such classifications of inactives are part and parcel of any social security system which is built upon the principle of specific and conditional rights to specific benefits. Only under & regime of an unconditional and universal grant for all citizens such [classifications would be unnecessary.

All these classifications bear moral overtones and are burdened with notions of “decency” and “respectability”. In moral terms, social security classes are certainly divided in an upper, a middle and an underclass retired people occupying the ranks of the most respectable upper clas$»j| the sick, the handicapped and the disabled occupying the less respected] but still deserving middle class, and the (long-term and young) unemployed filling the ranks of the least respected, more or less “undeservinging” underclass. (School)children, students, apprentices should be ranked some kind of a “upper middle class”, as they are doing some useful work preparing themselves to become part of the working population in the future. Members of the upper and especially the middle class can define themselves in terms of a special profession of trade–the profession trade they once belonged to or they will belong to in the near future And they have links with the groups of the working population they belonged to or will belong to–apprentices and students much stronger ones than the retired and disabled. But the latter still know to which group they will belong and try to stay in touch with their former colleagues, their trade unions and their clubs and associations. Maintaining some kind of a professional group identity certainly works as a means to keep the less deserving welfare state clients, the people on the dole and the mass of wretches living on social assistance at some social distance at least. Pensioners of various kinds–the largest group of welfare state clients– thus keep in touch with official politics, too; they are still included to some degree in professional organizations trade unions in the first place which they expect to represent their interests.

The administration of public services through a bureaucracy also often involves complicity, where pretense of a meritocratic system of assignment of people within a hierarchy is based mainly on merit and not on other criteria–such as nepotism. From Graeber (2015), pages 26-27:

Such institutions [bureaucracies] always create a culture of complicity. It’s not just that some people get to break the rules-it’s that loyalty to the 0rganization is to some degree measured by one’s willingness to pretend this isn’t happening. And insofar as bureaucratic logic is extended to the society as a whole, all of us start playing along.

This point is worth expanding on. W hat I am saying is that we are not just looking at a double standard, but a particular kind of double standard typical of bureaucratic systems everywhere.
All bureaucracies are to a certain degree utopian, in the sense that they propose an abstract ideal that real human beings can never live up to. Take the initial point about credentialism. Sociologists since Weber always note that it is one of the defining features of any bureaucracy that those who staff it are
selected by formal, impersonal criteria-most often, some kind of written test. (That is, bureaucrats are not, say, elected like politicians, but neither should they get the job just because they are someone’s cousin.) In theory they are meritocracies. In fact everyone knows the system is compromised in a thousand different ways … Many of the staff are in fact there just because they are someone’s cousin, and everybody knows it. The first criterion of loyalty to the organization becomes complicity. Career advancement is not based on merit, and not even based necessarily on being someone’s cousin; above all, it’s based on a willingness to play along with the fiction that career advancement is based on merit, even though everyone knows this not to be true.  Or with the fiction that rules and regulations apply to everyone equally, when, in fact, they are often deployed as a means for entirely arbitrary personal power.

Nor do Dunnah and Bush address how their proposals will enable people to control their own lives when the power of employers as a class is not addressed directly. From Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster (July 2010), “The Dialectic of Social and Ecological Metabolism: Marx, Meszaros, and the Absolute Limits of Capital,” Socialism and Democracy, pages 124-138, Volume 24, Number 2, page 129:

The ecological and social challenges that confront us are often minimized as the logic of capital goes unquestioned and various reforms are put forward (such as improving energy efficiency via
market incentives) under the assumption that the system can be tamed to accommodate human needs and environmental concerns. Such positions fail to acknowledge that the structural determinations of capital will inevitably grind onwards, threatening to undermine the conditions of life, unless systematic change is pursued to eradicate the capital relation entirely.

Possibility of Recommodification of Public Services

Since Dunnah and Bush fail to address the power of employers at work (see the previous post), their proposal for an enhanced welfare state would always be subject to the threat of the conversion of public services into private services provided by capitalist employers. Their approach lacks any realistic assessment of how decommodification of these services (the conversion of services into universally free and accessible) can be realized as a viable permanent solution to the problems which people face since Dhunna and Bush do not aim at dismantling the labour market, abolishing the power of the class of employers and hence the existence of classes.

Decommodification will always be threatened by recommodification (as it has been during the neoliberal era of privatization and deregulation) unless the power of employers as a class is broken for good–and they fail even to address this issue. From Chris Wright (2014), Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States, pages 147-148:

With respect to the very long run, Marx was always right that capitalism is not sustainable. There are many reasons for this, including the contradiction between a system that requires infinite growth and a natural environment that is finite, but the reason most relevant to Marxism is that
ultimately capital can never stop accumulating power at the expense of every other force in society. It is insatiable; its [competition-driven] lust for ever more profit and power condemns it to a life of Faustian discontent. It can never rest. Any accommodations, therefore, between the wage-earning
class and capital—such accommodations as the welfare state and the legitimization of collective bargaining—are bound to be temporary. Sooner or later capital’s aggressiveness will overpower contrary trends and consume everything, like a societal black hole (to change the metaphor). Everything is sucked into the vortex, including social welfare, the nation state, even nature itself. The logic is that nothing will remain but The Corporation [in the plural], and government protections of the people will be dismantled because such protections are not in the interest of capital. This absurd,
totalitarian logic can never reach its theoretical culmination, but it will, it must, proceed far enough, eventually, that an apocalyptic struggle between the masses and capital ensues. A relatively mild version of this happened once before, in the 1930s and ’40s, and a compromise [in the West]—the
mature welfare state—was the result. But then, as I said, capital repudiated the compromise (or is doing so as I write these words), and the old trends Marx diagnosed returned with a vengeance, and so humanity could look forward, this time, to a final reckoning. A final settling of accounts will occur in the coming century or two.

Conclusion

Dhunna’s and Bush’s aim of “affirm[ing] the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure” through an expansion of public services in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers is more rhetoric than reality since they fail to inquire into the nature of those public services. Welfare services are often oppressive, undemocratic and divisive. Furthermore, as long as the class power of employers is not explicitly challenged, the expansion of welfare services will always be threatened with a reduction of such services. 

So far in this series, I have shown that two of the three aims implied in Dhunna’s and Bush’s article–““meaningfully improve the material realities of working-class and oppressed people” and “affirm the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure“–are hardly solutions to the problems which regular workers, citizens and community members face these days.

I will pursue a different tactic in future posts that criticize Dhunnah’s and Bush’s article. Specifically, I will show how they almost always illegitimately assume a minimal basic income, distort the nature of the references they use to justify their claims and fail to take into consideration proposals that involve a robust universal basic income the aim of which is to challenge the legitimacy of a market for workers.

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