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Overcoming Barriers to Voluntary Servitude: Positive Thinking and Self-Help, the (Post-Political) Ideology of Workfare

Introduction: “Welfare Reform,” a Constituent Part of Neoliberalism

Ever since the 1980s and the geometric social and economic changes wrought by the global and specifically European emergence of neoliberalism, a key ideological tenet of the state has been the mantra of the necessity for “welfare reform.”

Indeed, the origins of the term can be traced to the UK and the “Anglo-American Model” of capitalism which came to predominate as a “post-political” template for Continental Europe and much of the rest of the world in the subsequent decades. Implicit in that term there is and always was, the state’s longstanding attempt to make what was once universal, “conditional,” and to develop something approaching a “workfare state” far removed from the “welfare state” of the post-war Keynesian compromise-internal markets and “contracting out” or “subcontracting” of the “delivery” of formerly public services on hand to advance this ambitious and thoroughly class-based project.

In the UK, what is understood as “workfare” has existed in some form since at least the mid-1980s, but the contemporary context is quite different to anything that has gone before in that in dividing and categorizing “the deserving and undeserving poor” and “making the unproductive productive”.1 The unemployed-that is, the surplus labour of capital-are made to work for companies unpaid and to “volunteer” for charities, and public and third sector organisations under direct and indirect threat of “sanction” (a.k.a. the removal of subsistence social entitlements), should they be perceived to be “refusing the help that is offered.” As such, the incumbent UK Conservative government, formerly the dominant party in the coalition of 2010-2015, has intensified and accelerated what was at least always an implicit tension and power the state sort to better articulate and wield, but not without suffering some very significant resistance and indeed defeats.

Underlying all such policy efforts, there is the “can do” positive thinking of the billion-pound workfare industry of multinational corporations and smaller, but no less committed, industry players in a continuous ideological barrage of individualizing what remain social problems by such glib terms as “overcoming barriers to employment” ironically inverted in this paper’s title by reference to Etienne la Boetie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude.2 This paper will seek to give a critical overview of workfare and resistance to it “from below” using the UK as its case study.

Neoliberalism has for decades set the terms of the “post-political” as parties of all shades have competed to “deliver what works” long since having dispensed with such esoteric notions as political philosophy-which is dismissed as “ideology” by something that is itself deeply ideological. Neoliberalism depoliticizes and disarms critique and removes questions which are inherently political and politicized by making them “beyond question” and the terms already set being “common sense.” Politicians and political parties enact neoliberal policies, and legislative and institutional frameworks on both the macro-, and micro-, level are formed and structured according to the same market-focused imperatives: market-focused in that they seek to at every turn reduce costs and allow the market into areas of life previously defined as off limits to it. One such area of public policy is the welfare state-such as it is-and increasingly “welfare provision,” in keeping with “welfare reform”-a term in use since at least the dawn of the neoliberal project itself. That project has considerable variations, but does have core principles which are apparent wherever it exists.

In the UK, what is known by the umbrella term “workfare” carries with it a whole raft of “conditionalities” and none more so than compulsory-and limitless-“positivity” on the part of those who are unemployed and also claimants of unemployment benefit: Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA) and Employment Support Allowance (ESA) for the sick, disabled, or those with incurable conditions, and what the state defines as subsistence. “Conditionalities” themselves refer to all of the means by which what was once considered universal and unconditional is rendered “conditional” and linked to the claimant’s compliance via a perceived mode of behaviour and attitude as defined as desirable by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the government department charged with administering JSA and ESA.

Such limitless “positivity” has distinct similarities with “get-rich-quick” pyramid schemes-legal or illegal-in its starry-eyed (and of course extremely cynical) wisdom that anything and everything can be seen as an “opportunity,” and preferred use of the infinitive and indefinite article to refer to everything and nothing to mean literally whatever it wants no less than in the highly selective use and distortion of language to do likewise. The same projection and inculcation of “limitless possibilities” to erroneously frame and “pitch” a specific message with or without the use of images, and via different media, could be a description of the sectors known as advertising, journalism, PR, marketing and sales of course. Advertising more than the others making extensive use of images and sophisticated use of all media, the others being much more textual or based on the manipulative use of speech and language, and thus reliant more on the instrumental use of words and text and their-selective-presentation to “get their message across.” The purpose of these comparisons is to further highlight “behavioural insights” and the fact that they comprise the basis for both the DWP’s and the billion-pound “welfare-to-work” industry’s use of “compulsory positivity” to make claimants believe they are responsible for something far beyond their control.

Indeed, workfare and “active labour market policies” individualize a social problem-unemployment-in keeping with the appearance of both in the 1980s and the rise and subsequent decades-long project of what is known as “neoliberalism.” Neoliberalism can perhaps be best defined as the historical trajectory of capitalism over the past thirty-five or so years, and the realignment of party politics and public policy to better serve its needs. This political project, begun by the New Right in the US and UK, of financialization of the economy along with deregulation as far as possible of the market and privatization of formerly public assets, had and has many more particular elements to it but a key and notable one, which like the neoliberal project itself is largely seen in “post-political” terms, is “welfare reform.” According to such “common sense” “post-political” wisdom, “welfare reform” (a.k.a. “welfare-to-work” and “active labour market policies”) are necessary because the welfare state “costs too much” and claiming benefits-specifically unemployment benefits-“has become a lifestyle choice.” Not only is this comment wrong, it’s also highly insensitive towards those claiming survivor benefits following the death of a spouse, which any Social Security office in Oregon, and the whole of the USA, will recognise as a legitimate source of income to help towards expenses, particularly for a young family. The comment also completely disregards the needs of people that can only survive off benefits such as the permanently disabled that can’t actually work, this could be one reason companies such as Crest SSD and others exist within the US to help the disabled claim the benefits that they are rightfully entitled to.

Neoliberalism:3 The Unspoken “Truth” of “Post-Politics”4

Neoliberalism” is a term rarely if ever used by its proponents, be they its policy makers or propagandists, and since the late twentieth century and Francis Fukuyama’s arrival at the “End of History” in 19895 further confirmed in 1992,6 “post-politics” takes such wisdom as given-implicitly or otherwise-and a straightforward “realism” toward the existing world and form of society. Such “capitalist realism” as Mark Fisher7has defined it is fond of dissolving any distinction between the factual and descriptive, and the normative or contested: “TINA” (There is No Alternative), as Margaret Thatcher liked to put it.8

It is beyond the scope of this article to give a full account of the origins and development of neoliberalism, but it is important to try to set out some of the background for understanding its application to the restructuring and severe limitation of the welfare state and the particular example of the case study here, the UK. “Neoliberalism” can be used to describe the historical development and “actually existing” nature of capitalism in the late twentieth century and early twenty first century, as much as an ideology supportive of that. Since at least the mid-1970s the neoliberal project found its major theoretical cornerstones in the (neo-)classical economic theory of Friedrich Von Hayek, Milton Friedman, and the “Chicago School” of free market economists, much of that being a set of “accepted truths” based on a very particular view of society and human beings: rational economic man being a self-interested monad in ceaseless each-against-all competition seeking to maximize his own interests at any cost.

The early twentieth century in Europe and the US was a time of intense class conflict-particularly in Europe-where revolution looked to be a real and ongoing threat until the mass annihilation of World War II. As such, the Keynesian “consensus” of the post-1945 “settlement” was as much a vast and radical restructuring of capitalism as it was in keeping with the political thinking for all parties in Europe, and in some ways America, remaining the “accepted truth” for roughly three decades, until the 1970s. Neoliberalism as has already been said, first properly emerged onto the world stage with the coming to power of Margaret Thatcher and the British Conservative Party in 1979 and Ronald Reagan’s Republicans in the US in 1980. From the start of the 1980s, there can be observed and traced distinct policy measures to alter capitalism to better serve the needs of the capitalist class and put even more crudely, the rich and powerful. The core ideological belief of neoliberalism is that the market is a supreme good in and of itself and should be as “free” as possible, meaning always seeking to reduce the role of the state to one of simply upholding social order, and as such, “not just the retention, but the expansion, extensive as well as intensive of its order-protecting policing functions”9frequently including internal markets in the state’s punitive functions formerly its own exclusive preserve, become a realm of private market contractors and subcontractors-something we will observe in relation to “welfare” in the course of this article.

Neoliberalism has always sought to remake societies in its own image but allows considerable space for “filling the vacuum” left by displaced and previously accepted societal norms which took collective social needs to mean they needed collective social solutions. From its early 1980s ascent onwards there was a conservative and often openly authoritarian political ambition allied with the far bigger neoliberal project aimed at both individualizing social problems whilst providing “answers” with the only collective solutions recognized by such a reactionary perspective, the family and the state. Indeed, neoliberalism at the global macro-level made much cynical and instrumental use of conservative and reactionary politics even before it properly saw power in the “first world,” displaying the same reactionary means and ends: Augusto Pinochet’s bloody coup in 1973 and subsequent murderous regime in Chile supported and facilitated by US political and economic elites being perhaps the most notorious example. Across Latin America in the 1980s, Reagan made pointed direct and indirect interventions aimed at undermining and defeating anything at all Washington deemed “left wing,” and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s own imposition of “structural adjustment” programmes on developing countries in the “third world”-specifically making them “adjust” to the free market by privatization and deregulation, as well as introducing “flexible” labour markets-something that continues in 2016 as a “post-political” “common sense” tenet of what is known as “globalization.”10

“Neoliberalism,” it can be contended, whilst like the “dismal science” of economistic reason itself in its claims to not being an ideology at all, but rather simple “realism,” continues to make extensive use of more openly ideological political projects, as well as being well-suited to accommodating them. Such reactionary politics allied to neoliberal policies may have historically been explicitly conservative or neoconservative in the 1980s but from the 1990s, and subsequently even more so in the 2000s up to the mid-2010s, these have tended to absolve themselves of all political or ideological form loudly declaring themselves “post-political” and “beyond left and right”; more and more not wanting to even use those terms preferring approved scripts of focus groups and professional spin doctors to stay “on message” at all times.11

In keeping with the “post-political” nature of the neoliberal project-broadly speaking the state seeking to better shore up capitalism as far as possible in symmetry with capitalism’s own restructuring and recomposition-the “political space” of such an inherently conservative project is easily filled by conservative and neoconservative policy assumptions. Such conservative and neoconservative policy assumptions have largely been accommodated and adapted by what is and always has been “post political” even if that term is almost never openly used. Neoliberalism has sought and seeks to bring to an end and indeed supersede the post-war Keynesian social compromise of full employment, a strong welfare safety net, public ownership of key industries, and state intervention to “pump prime” the economy when needed.12 In the thirty-five or so years since its inception, neoliberalism has successfully all but destroyed such “consensus” with its own prescriptions of structural unemployment combined with “active labour market policies,” “welfare reform,” privatization, de-regulation, and corporate tax breaks.

The “non-ideological” ideology of neoliberalism has substantial variations in application and adaption according to national locale and exact institutional interpretation, but the basic tenets of policy-making remain recognizably unchanged: “financialization” of the economy, though the term is never used by its proponents financialization meaning a long-term shift to heavy reliance on financial services and banking for “growth,” privatization of formerly public services, now achieved much more via “subcontracting” through “internal markets” in the “delivery” of these same public services which remain technically in the public sphere, and thus “not privatized,” and de-regulation. Following the global crisis (ongoing) in the UK that is the case study of this article, much “common sense” post-political mileage has been gained from the apparent necessity to “pay off the deficit,” meaning both government and its main “opposition” party in England and Wales Labour, repeat the same “realism” of “balancing the books”; that being “beyond left and right” and “not political or about politics.”

Post-crisis, the neoliberal project may be said to have been under severe strain, although the definite historical orientation of capitalism itself which it embodies has meant that in the last seven to eight years and after very intensive “state intervention in the economy,” no less than central banks’ sometime use of “quantitive easing” to print money, neoliberalism is “back”-as if it never went away. Indeed, it has been contended in this outline that the crisis begun in 2007-2008 remains ongoing, and there are very many voices-a number of those in fact being fund managers and investment bankers13-who believe that the crisis of capitalism is really far from over, and the next phase can be expected in the near future.

In party political terms, the (post-political) necessity for “balancing the books” and “paying off the deficit” was arguably the deciding factor in the UK general election of May 2015, resulting in a wafer thin outright “Tory” (Conservative) majority for (now ex) Prime Minister David Cameron, who had previously led the 2010-2015 coalition government-despite having gained only 34% of the vote. However, the electioneering homilies had the desired effect in enough key marginal seats in “middle England” for enough swing voters to vote Tory once again, the Labour Party being framed as having “caused the deficit,” and Labour offering only a tepid “alternative” not in any important way at odds with the same “realist” narrative. “Post-politics” amounted to and still does for Labour now in its own post-election crisis, as being “Coke or Pepsi,” the “Blue Labour”14 or “Red Tory” post-election factions competing unsuccessfully for the party leadership last year, mistakenly believing it can win power again, and the electorate will choose Pepsi over Coke if the flavour is very slightly modified.

This section has aimed to set out the broader historical and social and political context of neoliberalism and the terrain of “post-politics” of which it is part and can be said to be the primary force in helping create, that having as a substantial component both “welfare reform” and “active labour market policies,” no less than “welfare-to-work” and “workfare.” To conclude, the remainder of this section will aim to offer a more detailed outline of these core neoliberal post-political assumptions which now use “positive thinking” and instrumental rationality veiled as being about “empowerment” and the individualization of a social problem the responsibility of claimants even though it remains far beyond their control.

“Active Labour Policies,” “Make Work Schemes,” and Workfare in the UK

Active labour market policies”15 in keeping with their neoliberal origins and as a crucial part of the neoliberal project, have been around since the 1980s, and in the UK, began being implemented in earnest by the mid-late 80s with compulsory “Restart”16 interviews for claimants after six months of signing on in which they were made to attend the Job Centre and do “interviews” explaining what they had been doing to “improve their chances of getting a job” and “employment prospects.” “Active labour market policies” include “make work schemes” in which a form of subsidized employment is involved for at least a limited period and, although low paid, the claimant is paid a wage, usually in addition to their unemployment benefit. The aim of such a policy, however, has little to do with either creating actual employment for the claimant or “improving their skills,” but in shifting the burden for unemployment onto the shoulders of the unemployed. In the UK, in the early-1980s unemployment more than doubled after Margaret Thatcher’s coming to power in 1979, exceeding three million17 in 1982, before rising to 3,407,729 by 1986.18 One such “make work scheme,” already in existence at the time, the “Youth Opportunity Programme” (YOP),19 itself played no small part in helping to “reduce unemployment,” along with the state-run “Manpower Services Commission,” which oversaw the “Youth Training Scheme” (YTS)20 for sixteen- and seventeen-year-old unemployed school leavers, which superseded the YOP scheme as a flagship Tory employment policy for the rest of the 1980s.

This core component of neoliberalism in which the welfare state is no longer to provide social security but to administer what the state defines as “subsistence” in wholly conditional and limited terms, has been in existence in the United States, Canada, Australia, and most EU countries since the 1980s or 90s. In the UK, New Labour were themselves especially fond of “welfare-to-work” and accelerated and intensified the “conditionalities” of it; the flagship programme the “New Deal”21 of the first administration of Tony Blair being continued for all subsequent administrations including that of Gordon Brown for the thirteen years the party remained in power. The “Flexible New Deal” was the belated very slight “tweaking” of the New Deal in the last days of New Labour and Gordon Brown’s administration introduced in 2009, but was replaced by the wide spectrum “welfare-to-work” schemes of the Conservative-led coalition government formed after the May 2010 general election.

From 2011, the “New Deal” was replaced by the “Work Programme”22 as the “first tier” “workfare” scheme of the Conservative-led coalition government. The “Work Programme” has been dogged by criticism and failure, and has faced sustained criticism, having a 96.4% failure rate, and getting only 3 per 100 of JSA claimants “into work” lasting at least three months. The “Work Programme” is compulsory for all JSA claimants after twelve months being unemployed, six months for those under twenty-five; however, despite being the “first tier” workfare scheme, there were another six such schemes in operation: “Work Experience”-targeting especially although not exclusively young people-almost all of which can be imposed whenever the Job Centre decides, according to the “interpretation” of an “adviser” if they think a claimant “would benefit” from what amounts to a more punitive workfare scheme. The other schemes all operate-and operated-using more or less mandatory criteria again,23 a claimant’s eligibility being completely open to interpretation, and deliberately so. “Mandatory Work Activity” was perhaps the most notorious such scheme, and was still in operation along with the “Community Action Programme,”24 until the DWP announced in November 2015 that it was “not renewing”25 either: from seven to five schemes. Meanwhile, “Sector-Based Work Academies,”26 completes the original seven now five schemes the coalition introduced. In late 2013, then chancellor George Osborne announced the introduction of two new workfare schemes under the umbrella name “Help to Work,”27 comprising “Community Work Placements”28 and “Traineeships,”29 the latter targeting unemployed school leavers lacking qualifications, who must work full-time without pay as a condition of claiming JSA. “Community Work Placements” involved claimants who had been through the “Work Programme” and who remained unemployed, and involved “volunteering” doing something “of benefit to the community” for thirty hours a week for six months unpaid as the condition of still claiming JSA.

Perhaps the most notable victory against workfare yet inflicted by the massive and ongoing campaign to stop it in all its forms, was indeed the announcement by the DWP in November 2015 that it was “not renewing” “Help to Work” and its “Community Work Placements,” or indeed “Mandatory Work Activity.”30 This announcement was hidden away and received no publicity at all, and it cannot be expected that reasons for these workfare schemes being scrapped would be attributed to the opposition and resistance which rendered them unworkable, but it is really not difficult to make the correlation. Another significant very defeat inflicted on workfare in the UK since the different drafted versions of this article, was the Court of Appeal ruling in July 2016 against the DWP that it must release the names of 534 organisations involved in Mandatory Work Activity as ‘placement providers,’ after it had spent four years trying to block their release.31

Additionally, the same DWP press release quietly announced that the “Work Programme” would be “replaced.” To further clarify here for the reader, all such workfare schemes are underwritten by the threat of “sanctions” meaning the withdrawal of benefits for non-compliance, although the “small print” of this is almost never made explicit to the claimant and instead left to them to find out the hard way, “compulsory positivity” veiling such thoroughly punitive and arbitrary impositions in wholly positive terms of “empowerment” and “fulfilling potential.” Or rather the completely one-sided “choice” of “you don’t have one” is framed in those erroneous terms whilst the punitive consequences for the claimant are simply the unfortunate result of not “accepting” such a “choice.”

Whilst the contemporary variants of workfare in the UK are in many ways specific to the 2016 Conservative government, and before that the Conservative-led coalition of 2010-2015, the ever-more punitive nature of “workfare” over the last two decades was also very much a part of the project known as “New Labour”-for all its “modernisation” gloss. One such workfare scheme was “Job Seeker Mandatory Activity” (JMA),32 a short-lived scheme targeting claimants twenty-five and over who had been signing on for all of six months, undertaking “mandatory activity” under (not so) implicit threat of “sanction” for non-compliance. The said scheme only lasted for two years before being quietly scrapped, the far better known “New Deal” versions of “workfare” all using one of the key features of the workfare industry itself in “personalizing” what are completely generic and arbitrary criteria for individualizing what are social problems. “Workfare” and indeed all of the implications of that, shifts the burden for unemployment back onto the “Job Seeker,”33 and holds them “responsible” for the fact that they are unemployed. In “post-politics,” this is an “accepted truth” in which conservative assumptions about society and social problems become the standard reflex for “policy-makers”: not for nothing did Margaret Thatcher claim that her greatest achievement had been Tony Blair and New Labour.34

Indeed, the “welfare-to-work” industry is a multibillion pound industry which has long made its billions from “outsourcing” and “subcontracting” the “delivery” of the state functions for “welfare” provision,35 although that term has not historically been used in the British context except to refer to the “welfare state,” “social security” being the preferred descriptor; however, the neoliberal turn of the past thirty-five plus years and the composite and central role played by “welfare reform,” has meant that “welfare” has become the standard party political term, as for the “welfare reform” mantra for some time now. As this article has sought to explain, “active labour market policies” go back some time in the UK and indeed in other European counties, as does what may be considered their “coded” identifier: “welfare reform,” a term in common usage by parties of all shades for decades now-especially in the UK, our case study.

“Subcontracting” the “delivery” of what remain services in the public sector or actual state functions is also a key foundation of neoliberalism, that being internal markets: the supposed “common sense” and “post-political” wisdom being that these offer greater efficiency in “delivering” what formerly wholly non-marketized public sector and state provision couldn’t. Indeed, multinational “outsourcing” of everything from the “delivery” of the functions of “welfare” to “security” is also a billion-pound industry in its own right: G4S and Serco being perhaps the two most (in)famous names. This being such a key tenet of the ideology of neoliberalism, it is important to take into account in the critical analysis of the punitive nature of “workfare,” and indeed “active labour market policies,” themselves both presented as always being-like the never spoken of ideology in question itself-in wholly “pragmatic” and “realistic” terms.

Mandatory Positivity and Voluntary Servitude: The Only Limits Are Your Own!

It is worth restating that the UK Conservative government, unexpectedly elected in May 2015-and indeed that of Theresa May which replaced it in July 2016-continued and continues to accelerate and intensify punitive workfare programmes all the time, as it did in coalition (2010-2015), the difference now being that it seemingly believes it can do what it likes, secure that the Labour Party’s opposition will amount to “agreeing in principle” with whatever it does-and voting with it in practice. Young people under twenty-one have been especially hard hit, most recently (in August 2015), it was announced young unemployed people will be obliged from 2016 to attend “boot camps”36 to “improve their employment chances” and, of course, as the condition of being able to claim a “youth allowance” or face its removal, extraordinarily, the Cameron government tried to claim the even more punitive threats of “sanction” underlying its newest plans were “proof” of their effectiveness.37 Such openly punitive threats of punishment (a.k.a. making claimants destitute), for non-compliance by the Cameron Conservative government38 are noticeably out-of-step with the usual breathless positivity of “empowerment” and “building confidence” which “active labour market policies” and workfare prefer; however, the proposed “boot camps” for unemployed youth are part of the Cameron government’s plans to “abolish youth unemployment”: by abolishing the category and “earn or learn,” the overall name for the policy returns to the approved script of compulsion and coercion, being about “empowerment” and as far as possible making this the responsibility of the individual, it being “self-development” after all.

In their recent article, “Positive affect as coercive strategy: conditionality, activation and the role of psychology in UK government workfare programmes,”39 Lynne Friedli and Robert Stern note how more than ever “workfare” is underlined by a belief that, “people are unemployed because they have the wrong attitude or outlook,”40 and workfare and “labour market activation policies” are “a means to achieve employability or ‘job readiness’ (possessing work-appropriate attitudes and beliefs.)”41 The welfare-to-work industry has long specialized in “positivity” to veil the nature of what it does: compelling those without any other choice but to claim the benefits defined by the state as “subsistence” to believe that what they are subjected to is “help and support.” Indeed, with glacial cynicism, in July 2015 the DWP appointed “Coach and Blueprint Therapist” and founder of “Start Smiling Again,” David Rahman who despite being neither a doctor, psychiatrist, clinical psychologist, or psychotherapist, claims to be able to diagnose and cure mental illness, his methods involving non-accredited certificates for JSA claimants who are compelled to attend his “classes.”42 Rahman’s non-clinical definition of “insanity” is, “Being unhappy, and not willing to change the way you think.”43

In all policy documents and in all of its PR communications, the DWP refers to “active labour market policies” and all variations of “welfare-to-work,” no less than unpaid labour underwritten by the threat-usually implicit-of “sanction,” as being “support.”44 In the use of the word “support” to refer to whatever it does, the DWP apparently believes this to be a generic abstract noun, which can be applied to literally anything and everything it does as the government department tasked with administering what the state considers “subsistence”: including the diametric opposite of the word’s meaning. The use of “sanctions” being the crudest example of this “Doublethink,” the multiple variants of workfare and the cynical use of that industry’s own love of “fake smiles and first names” and “forced informality” being the other, more sophisticated kind. The previous coalition government and indeed the incumbent one of David Cameron had and has some notoriety for its use of mass “sanctioning” for the slightest and pettiest infraction,45 the DWP in August 2015 being reduced to actually inventing the “stories” of non-existent claimants on how they’d “been helped” by being “sanctioned”: a FOI request breaking in the media,46 and on social media rendering this ridiculous.47

The Cameron government, like the coalition one of 2010-2015, made much of its so-called “nudge unit” or “Behavioural Insights Team”48 to “change behaviour” in different policy areas. The use of compulsory positivity toward anything and everything done by the DWP-however punitive-can be seen as one especially pointed application of such cynical instrumental rationality, which makes use of the “behavioural insights” of “behavioural psychology” and “behavioural economics.” Such instrumental rationality takes as “given” whatever end it serves and does not use any sort of abstract or critical reason toward either that same end, itself, or indeed any “bigger picture” of ideas, concepts or evidence at any stage.

Compulsory positivity has long been favoured by the welfare-to-work industry and is discernible in the history of “active labour market policies” and all versions of workfare past and present; however, now the DWP itself is also infused with it. As has already been noted, the DWP as the government department charged with administering what the state defines as “subsistence” takes this to mean that whatever it does can thus be termed “support,” including the diametric opposite of what the word means. As such, compulsion and coercion can be understood as “support” as can workfare, and the withdrawal of subsistence benefits via “sanctions”-at least as far as the DWP and welfare-to-work industry are concerned. The extremely conditional nature of all benefits especially JSA and ESA and the ever-more arbitrary imposition of “conditions” operate through a matrix of interpretive tripwires designed to trip the unwary claimant, but which are always presented in terms of limitless positivity and self-help mantras. To be sure, the DWP seeks to “change behaviour” by making the behaviour of claimants symmetrical with the policies it implements, put crudely-but these after all are crude policies and indeed beliefs-life is a struggle of each-against-all in which the strongest survive (and come out on top), and those in need are the “weak” and can be assumed to be without agency or will of their own, thus passive and inert they can be seen as compliant and accepting of whatever is enacted even if it is diametrically against their own interests. Such reactionary and deeply conservative homilies do indeed underwrite the post-political “insights” of the so-called “nudge unit” and the DWP’s own punitive regime of ever greater “conditionality,” workfare, and sanctions.

As Friedelli and Stern have convincingly shown, according to the instrumental rationality of “behavioural psychology” deployed by the DWP, unemployment is explained as the failings of the individual who needs to change their attitude, outlook, and disposition-as well as their skills-and the constant pressure to do so, with starry-eyed mantras of “self-development” and “succeeding” is what the DWP and its workfare subcontractors demand, in effect “mandatory positive affect.”49 As Friedelli and Stern also note, such use of instrumental “behavioural” psychology and economics is seen as legitimating public policy, and is itself very much in keeping with “post-politics,” New Labour and the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown before David Cameron and his coalition and now separate administration from 2015 and post-Cameron from 2016, also being very keen on it. The legitimacy of “behavioural insights” comes from its “scientific” basis although it must be repeated that this is pseudoscience and has no actual basis in scientific fact-something those who practice it do not like being reminded of.50

The famously “flexible labour markets” of the UK in 2016 find further “flexibility” in the “re-classification” of what counts as “in employment” being “unemployed,” and what is defined as “work” itself, workfare being in every sense composite to that. To clarify, “workfare” is any sort of unpaid labour which claimants must do under threat of “sanction”-this much more often than not only ever an implicit threat. Workfare can involve JSA or ESA conscripts doing the exact same job as paid employees whilst being neither: paid or employees, or can involve a claimant “volunteering” for a charity or “social enterprise,” without of course having volunteered at all. Besides the obvious problems for employees at an employer where unpaid non-employees are also used, there is the problem for voluntary organisations making use of involuntary labour and the injustice this does to real volunteering.

These kinds of policies, seeking to model in unemployed people the imperatives of the market, are carried out by means of the market, through those who are paid to ‘activate’ claimants and those who benefit from their unpaid labour (Friedelli, L. and Stern, R. (2015)).

The “flexible subject” of neoliberalism must at all times seek to better adapt themselves to market imperatives, in effect to give of self completely and to identify with such demands at all times through total existential affect. Zygmunt Bauman has defined well such a constant everyday war of attrition:

An endless game of musical chairs in which one moment of inattention will result in inevitable defeat and irrevocable exclusion; or into a version of The Weakest Link played for real. With the real significance of each successive ‘step forward’ being, as in that tele-reality show, the eviction and bankruptcy of the person who was the slowest in taking it (Bauman, Z. (2006)).51

In the present day UK, workfare in its existing variants-including so-called “Traineeships” for young people lacking qualifications-is the punitive means by which unwanted surplus labour is “made productive”: certainly in creating value, but without being paid. Marx stated, “Labour is determined by labour, as a mere factor in self-valorising capital.”52 As has already been said, workfare conscripts do the exact same jobs as paid employees whilst being neither: paid or employees, while those made to “volunteer” are also-made to-undermine actual volunteering. This is very much a “discipline and punish” Victorian workhouse ideology of the “deserving and undeserving poor” receiving a twenty-first century gloss in starry-eyed “self-help” mantras of “empowerment” and “fulfilling potential,” and in more straightforwardly post-political terms such as “overcoming barriers” to employment-individualizing the social problem of unemployment in the supposed “barriers” the claimant has constructed, the biggest “barrier” to employment being unemployment never of course entering into it.

Although “active labour market policies” and “workfare” have been in existence for decades, in the last four years they have encountered serious opposition and resistance. Boycott Workfare53 is perhaps the best example of a diffuse and highly successful campaign to oppose and resist workfare,54 although there are many other groups and many individuals who have contributed.55 As of February 2016, close to 100 different organisations, companies, charities, public and third sector, have either withdrawn from some or all variants of workfare, or publicly stated that they would not participate in the newest, most punitive version, “Help to Work” and its “Community Work Placements”; something which it could be said to have contributed considerably to these being scrapped. The DWP itself had three previous court rulings against its efforts to withhold the names of subcontractors and “placement providers,” and unsuccessfully appealed for a fourth time.56 In spite of such feeble attempts to withhold the names of organisations involved in versions of workfare, many are known and many more emerge all the time, withdrawals regularly following public opposition to participation.

It should be noted here, that although Boycott Workfare’s diffuse and highly-effective tactics have helped catalyse the far bigger online campaign against workfare,57 the campaign to undo workfare completely, includes many different groups and individuals and whilst protests at the premises of “placement providers” of workfare have certainly contributed to the 100 withdrawals from one or all versions of workfare by organisations commercial and voluntary, social media-Facebook and Twitter especially-have undoubtedly had the greatest effect. Put simply for those readers unfamiliar with the subject, online protest highlighting the unpaid conscripted nature of workfare, and its exploitative and involuntary basis, has led to the withdrawals, proving also, that there is such a thing as negative publicity.


This article has sought to give a critical overview of workfare in the UK, and contribute to the burgeoning critical literature on workfare and “active labour market policies.”58 Workfare has never been “bigger” than in the present day UK, as in more high profile and more in use, however with such visibility and such a high profile, no less than the incumbent government’s ideological insistence on its use, there too is amplified opposition and resistance to it. The punitive and disciplinary nature of workfare and indeed the very many implications that this has for employment and unemployment as much as the freight of further questions this throws up mean that all those who have contested and contest workfare understand that the very terms of material existence itself are at stake.

The material terms of existence itself are the “ability to purchase a living,”59or indeed the material means to reproduce one’s existence, and workfare seeks to redraw the terms of these terms, “sanctions” and the threat of sanctions underwriting this wholly one-sided and deeply ideological project. However, as well as the crude and material means being withdrawn or made “conditional,” in conclusion we return to the title of this paper: “overcoming barriers to voluntary servitude,” this ironic subversion of the favoured term of the DWP and welfare-to-work industry using La Boetie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, calls into question the supposed “voluntary” nature of workfare and indeed “active labour market policies,” and indicts them for what they are.

In the course of the article there has also been made the attempt to critically examine positive thinking and self-help, as the (post-political) ideology of workfare, which aims to (re)define the very ontology of those whose worlds it reifies. In opposing and resisting workfare, there are counter “behaviours, attitudes, and perceptions” which understand exactly what workfare is, and why it is being used, recognizing that it is not the individual who is at fault for being unemployed, any more than this is as a result of their “behaviours, attitudes, or perceptions,” and as such-besides its own highly dubious efficacy-“positive thinking” towards actual servitude is a confidence trick that is being convincingly exposed and weakened accordingly; the article aiming to be a contribution to that same process.


  1. By this is meant that a severely limited and indeed diminishing amount of paid employment becomes more and more apparent in advanced economies in the early twenty first century, due to technology and the drastically changed and increasingly precarious forms work takes, so capital throws off a far greater unwanted surplus of labour than can be usefully exploited in the production of value and the extraction of profit. As such, the unwanted surplus reduced to claiming what the state defines as subsistence, are made to “work” unpaid as the key “conditionality” of what was once supposed to be unconditional, this being embodied in “workfare.”
  2. Étienne de La Boétie (1548), Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, available at: http://www.constitution.org/la_boetie/serv_vol.htm.
  3. For important and concise introductions see Pierre Bourdieu (1998), “Utopia of endless exploitation: The essence of neoliberalism,” Le Monde Diplomatique, available at: http://www.mondediplo.com/1998/12/08bourdieu/; David Harvey (2005), A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press); Manfred B. Steger and Ravi K. Roy (2010), Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  4. For a good critical collection on the “post-political”, see Japhy Wilson and Erik Swyngedouw, eds. (2015), The Post-Political
    and Its Discontents: Spaces of Depoliticisation, Spectres of Radical Politics (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).
  5. Francis Fukuyama (1989), “The End of History?,” The National Interest (Summer 1989), available at: http://www.wesjones.com/eoh.htm.
  6. Francis Fukuyama (1992), The End of History and the Last Man (Harmondsworth: Penguin Press).
  7. Mark Fisher (2009), Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester: Zer0).
  8. Quoted in Steger and Roy (2010), Neoliberalism, p. 21.
  9. Zygmunt Bauman (2006), Liquid Fear (Cambridge: Polity Press), p. 135.
  10. This remains a thoroughly contested concept, but the broadly understood meaning of it in its dominant sense is neoliberal globalization or the globalization of neoliberalism, something advanced by supra state global institutions such as the G7, G20, IMF, World Bank, and OECD, and indeed powerful lobbyist groups such as the World Economic Forum. A good and short critical introduction to the subject is Wayne Ellwood (2011), The No-Nonsense Guide to Globalization (Oxford: New Internationalist Publications Ltd).
  11. Christian Garland, “Post-Politics: A Failed Mystification of Sound Bite and Cliche, Its Time Is at an End,” The Huffington Post, 31 August 2015, available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/christian-garland-/postpolitics-a-failedmys_
  12. The global crisis begun in 2007 in the US through the “sub-prime” mortgage crisis become the “credit crunch” over the course of 2008 become a full-scale financial crisis rapidly spreading across whole national economies and many different sectors, also relied on what could be called “Neoliberalism with Keynesian characteristics,” in that states quickly intervened to essentially nationalize banks and large financial institutions deemed “too big to fail”: too big to fail since the knock-on social costs were seen as far costlier without state intervention hence the need for in effect the “socialization” of “private” debt. Another important though different dimension of the same global crisis, can be observed in the European Sovereign Debt Crisis, in which debt taken on by EU states in different-predominantly Mediterranean countries-has involved governments, being forced to call on the IMF and ECB (European Central Bank) to be able to refinance debt or bail out over-indebted banks. In so doing, the “deal” for states being able to borrow is to massively reduce public spending, seen in mass redundancies in the public sector, cuts to all social provisions, and to all public services. Such market discipline is also apparent in the loss of former credit ratings or reduction to “junk” status for the countries in question, along with “capital flight” as “investor confidence” is lost.
  13. Crispin Odey of Odey Asset Management, has said that he believes the next phase of crisis will be “remembered in a hundred years,” further noting, “If economic activity far from picks up, but falters, then there will be a painful round of debt default.” Anna Federova, “Odey: Equity markets will be ‘devastated’ as global economy slumps,” Investment Week, 27 January 2015, available at: http://www.investmentweek.co.uk/investment-week/news/2392117/odey-equity-markets-will-get-devastated/. Meanwhile, Jeremy Grantham of fund manager GMO, has been quoted as saying he thinks global markets are “ripe for a major decline” in 2016. See Robin Wigglesworth, “GMO founder Grantham says markets ‘ripe for major decline’ in 2016,” Financial Times, 6 August 2015, available at: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/82737cca-39f2-11e5-bbd1-b37bc06f590c.html#axzz3iGIbmMlK. Meanwhile Albert Edwards, head of strategy at investment bank Société Générale has identified the UK economy as looking “like a ‘ticking time bomb’ waiting to explode.” See Katie Allen, “‘Timebomb’ UK economy will explode after election, says Albert Edwards,” The Guardian, 24 April 2015, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/apr/14/timebomb-uk-economy-will-explode-afterelection-says-albert-edwards/.
  14. The term “Blue Labour” can be seen as a very contemporary manifestation of “post-politics” and particular to the UK, coming “after” New Labour and the “Third Way,” although rarely used as a term in party politics, the latter concept-such as it is-infuses Social Democratic parties across the EU, even if only implicitly. The “Third Way” was the work of Anthony Giddens who published a number of books on the subject beginning with Anthony Giddens (1998), The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy (Cambridge: Polity Press). In the UK, “Blue Labour” forms a more distinct grouping and tendency in the British Labour Party, unlike the older and more pejorative “Red Tory,” which has also been used far less in the UK. “Blue Labour” is the somewhat opportunist attempt to appropriate “social conservatism” and play to it whilst trying to fuse that with “socially progressive” ideas formerly associated with the party. It has its origins in the thinking of Labour Peer Maurice Glassman and a collection of essays edited by Ian Geary and Adrian Pabst (2015), called Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics (London: IB Tauris).
  15. Gosta Esping-Andersen (1990), The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity Press).
  16. Policy Studies Institute (1992), “The Restart Effect: Evaluation of a labour market programme for unemployed people,” available at: http://www.psi.org.uk/site/publication_detail/1427/.
  17. James Denman and Paul McDonald (1996), “Unemployment Statistics from 1881 to the present day,” Labour Market Trends, pp. 5-18, prepared by the Government Statistical Service and available from the Office of National Statistics (ONS).
  18. Ibid. p. 10.
  19. “Youth Employment Inventory Consortium, YOUTH OPPORTUNITY PROGRAMME (YOP),” available at: http://www.youth-employment-inventory.org/inventory/view/234/. This undated document notes “XI Quality of the Intervention Intervention had negative impact in the labor market.”
  20. “Youth Employment Inventory Consortium, YOUTH TRAINING SCHEME (YTS),” available at: http://www.youth-employment-inventory.org/inventory/view/235/. See “XI Quality of the Intervention There is not enough evidence to make an assessment.”
  21. Jane Millar (2000), “Keeping track of welfare reform The New Deal programmes,” (York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation), available at: http://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/files/jrf/1859353436.pdf; Aufheben (2000), “Stop the Clock! Critiques of the New Social Workhouse,” available at: https://www.libcom.org/library/stop-the-clock-aufheben/.
  22. Steven Swinford, “£5bn Work Programme ‘worse than doing nothing’,” The Telegraph, 27 June 2013, available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/spending-review/10146659/5bn-Work-Programme-worse-than-doing-nothing.html; Mary-Rachel McCabe, “Worse than doing nothing,” The Justice Gap, 27 February 2013, available at: http://www.thejusticegap.com/2013/02/worse-than-nothing-only-3-6-on-work-scheme-found-jobs/; Patrick Wintour, “Work Programme ‘failing those most in need and should be broken up’,” The Guardian, 15 June 2014, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/jun/15/work-programme-mental-health-ippr-thinktank-benefit.
  23. Shiv Malik, “Mandatory work scheme does not improve job chances research shows,” The Guardian, 13 June 2012, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2012/jun/13/mandatory-work-scheme-government-research/.
  24. Shiv Malik, “Million jobless may face six months’ unpaid work or have benefits stopped,” The Guardian, 29 July 2012, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2012/jul/29/long-term-unemployed-unpaid-work/.
  25. Department for Work and Pensions and HMTreasury, policy paper, “2010 to 2015 government policy: employment,” updated 8 May 2015, available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/2010-to-2015-government-policy-employment/2010-to-2015-government-policy-employment#appendix-1-managing-the-work-programme/.
  26. Department for Work and Pensions, “Sector-based work academies: employer guide,” 19 March 2013, updated 27 April 2014, available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/sector-based-work-academies-employer-guide/.
  27. Department for Work and Pensions, “Help to Work: nationwide drive to help the long-term unemployed into work,” 27 April 2014, updated 28 May 2014, available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/help-to-work-nationwide-drive-to-help-the-long-term-unemployed-into-work/; “Q&A: What will ‘Help to Work’ mean for claimants?,” BBC News, 28 April 2014, available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-24330508/.
  28. Kevin Curley, “Community work placements are offensive – not to mention unworkable,” Third Sector, 20 May 2014, available at: https://www.thirdsector.co.uk/kevin-curley-community-work-placements-offensive-not-mention-unworkable/policy-and-politics/article/1294817; “Community Work Placements are wrong,” Boycott Workfare, available at: http://www.boycottworkfare.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/bw-claimants-flyer.pdf.
  29. Department for Work and Pensions, “Traineeships,” 21 February 2014, updated 22 May 2015, available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/traineeshipsprogramme/.
  30. Department for Work and Pensions, “Department for Work and Pensions’ Settlement at the Spending Review,” available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/department-for-work-and-pensions-settlement-at-the-spending-review/.
  31. Royal Courts of Justice, “In the Court Of Appeal (Civil Division) on Appeal from The Upper Tribunal (Administrative Appeals Chamber) GIA25602013,” 27 July 2016, between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Information Commissioner Frank Zola, available at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bwd25z9g2tFPM2dBUHlTRjBHcEU0Y19FVjlkSGFmYmQxZDZR/view?pref=2&pli=1; “Successful bidders: Frank Zola made this Freedom of Information request to Department for Work and Pensions,” 28 July 2016, available at: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/successful_bidders#comment-71150/.
  32. House of Commons, “Draft Jobseeker’s Allowance (Jobseeker Mandatory Activity) Pilot Regulations 2005,” available at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmstand/deleg4/st051207/51207s01.htm.
  33. See “Jobseekers Act 1995,” available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1995/18/part/I/.
  34. “Late in 2002 Lady Thatcher came to Hampshire to speak at a dinner for me. Taking her round at the reception one of the guests asked her what was her greatest achievement. She replied, ‘Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.'” See Connor Burns (2008), “Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement: New Labour,” available at: http://www.conservativehome.blogs.com/centreright/2008/04/making-history.html.
  35. Welfare “provision” meaning rather as has already been said, the “delivery” of state functions, even if it remains the state department charged with administering what the state defines as “subsistence” benefits. The British state long having embraced “active labour market policies” and “workfare,” meaning that the “delivery” of “welfare provision” means literally “an offer you can’t refuse” for unemployed claimants (and increasingly the sick, disabled, or those with incurable conditions), that being working unpaid or “volunteering” as the essential “condition” of being able to claim “Job Seekers Allowance” (and increasingly “Employment Support Allowance”).
  36. Oliver Wright, “Jobless young people to attend ‘boot camps’ in ‘no excuses’ crackdown on youth unemployment,” The Independent, 17 August 2015; Aubrey Allegretti, “Jobless Young Adults Will Lose Benefits If They Don’t Do Jobs ‘Boot Camp’ To Prepare Them for the Workforce, Minister Warns,” The Huffington Post, 17 August 2015, available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/08/17/jobs-boot-camp-matthew-hancock_n_7996438.html.
  37. Wright, “Jobless young people.”
  38. This article was written before David Cameron called a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU), which having lost ended his premiership: his resignation swiftly following the 24 June result, Theresa May replacing him as Prime Minister.
  39. Lynne Friedli and Robert Stern (2015), “Positive affect as coercive strategy: conditionality, activation and the role of psychology in UK government workfare programmes,” Medical Humanities 41, pp. 41-47, available at: http://mh.bmj.com/content/41/1/40/.
  40. Friedli and Stearn, “Positive affect,” p. 40.
  41. Ibid.
  42. “Job centres to overcome mental health barriers to work,” ITV News, 6 July 2015, available at: http://www.itv.com/news/wales/2015-07-06/job-centres-to-overcome-mental-health-barriers-to-work/.
  43. David Rahman, Twitter, available at: https://twitter.com/davidrahman/status/527752309913436162/.
  44. “Help to Work,” 27 April 2014.
  45. Patrick Butler, “Benefit sanctions: the 10 trivial breaches and administrative errors,” The Guardian, 24 March 2015, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/mar/24/benefit-sanctions-trivial-breaches-and-administrative-errors/.
  46. “DWP admit using made-up quotes from fictional claimants,” Channel 4 News, 18 August 2015, available at: http://www.channel4.com/news/dwp-admit-using-made-up-quotes-from-fictional-claimants/.
  47. Sophie Brown, “Twitter Takes Down The DWP After News Of Fake Benefit Sanctions In Brilliant #FakeDW,” The Huffington Post, 18 August 2015, available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/08/18/fakedwptweets-twitter-benefits_n_8004326.html.
  48. Behavioural Insights’ website can be accessed at: http://www.behaviouralinsights.co.uk/.
  49. Friedli and Stearn, “Positive affect,” p. 40.
  50. Noam Chomsky (1971), “The Case Against B.F. Skinner,” New York Review of Books, 30 December 1971, available at: http://www.chomsky.info/articles/19711230.htm.
  51. Bauman, Liquid Fear, p. 139.
  52. Karl Marx (1861), “Economic Works of Karl Marx 1861-1864 ad 2) Capitalist Production as the Production of Surplus Value, [469a] 6) The Direct Production Process,” available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1864/economic/ch02a.htm.
  53. Boycott Workfare’s website can be found at: http://www.boycottworkfare.org.
  54. Christian Garland (2014), “5 Reasons Workfare is Coming Undone,” 3 July 2014, available at: http://wire.novaramedia.com/2014/07/5-reasons-workfare-is-coming-undone/.
  55. Just a couple of the other groups involved in the ongoing campaign against workfare are Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty (http://www.edinburghagainstpoverty.org.uk); Haringey Solidarity Group (http://www.haringey.org.uk/content/home/); and the Solidarity Federation (http://www.solfed.org.uk).
  56. “The list of shame: Court tells DWP to reveal workfare users,” Boycott Workfare, 23rd July 2014, available at: http://www.boycottworkfare.org/?p=3680.
  57. Garland, “Five Reasons Workfare is Coming Undone”; “Universal Discredit,” De-Arrest Editorial Services, 7 September 2015, available at: http://www.metamute.org/community/your-posts/universal-discredit/. The literature on workfare in the UK is very scant, but the above two short contemporary texts give a good critical overview.
  58. “Facing psychological coercion and manipulation has become a daily part of claiming benefits,” The Conversation, 8 July 2015, available at: https://theconversation.com/facing-psychological-coercion-and-manipulation-has-become-a-daily-part-ofclaiming-benefits-42839; Christian Garland, “Inflicting the Structural Violence of the Market: Workfare and Underemployment to Discipline the Reserve Army of Labour,” Fast Capitalism 12:1 (2015), available at: http://www.uta.edu/huma/agger/fastcapitalism/12_1/Garland-Inflicting-Structural-Violence.htm.
  59. Firdielli and Stern, p. 40.