Monday, April 04, 2005

the misfortune to be relieved of our infirmities

When Dario Fo came up with the idea for Mistero Buffo, a collection of religious plays popular in Italian City states in the middle ages the central point he was trying to get across was that class struggle can take surprising forms. In one scene, a blind beggar panics as Jesus approaches. “Just think, if both of us had the misfortune to be relieved of our infirmities! All of a sudden, we would be forced to go out and look for work so as to be able to survive.” After a dodgy Economist survey placed Ireland top of a standard of living league, and as the UN massages the government’s back even further with celebratory low unemployment figures something is seriously amiss when we saunter on penniless from one shit job to the next, one cramped gaff to the other and bus queue to traffic jam. With not a dole queue in sight our generation relates to it as a torturous affair from the ‘80’s, with Christy Moore and others braying about how he could dig a hole, and we can all make it work. It seemed everybody wanted off it then.

Work is a system and where there’s a system, there are always loop holes. In the early eighties, Crass a second wave punk band that brought Britain stencil graffiti, identified one of those holes by screaming ‘do they owe us a living? Course they do, course they fucking do.’ As a generation that has experienced full employment, alongside the feeling of being mugged when a grisly balance pops up on ATM screens the day after rent is due, despite economising on cans and pasta. It might be word to the wise to take their advice, opt out of work and rip off the dole.

Full employment comes at a cost, the real cost is demeaning jobs in the low end of the service economy. As one student described: “I went on the dole because after getting my arts degree I foolishly thought I could quit my crappy job and walk into a decent one. So I handed out in my last two weeks after handing in my notice, you know, I handed out a rake of cvs, I mean sixty to eighty CVs in fact to various places so I couldn’t find work even with an arts degree, my ambition even went down so I started handing in CV’s to other Mickey Mouse outlets. Still no luck. So I decided to apply for the dole.”

In Ireland that option is still there. Meanwhile there has been a huge neo-liberal restructuring of the dole across the EU since the late 80’s. Thatcher began restructuring the dole in Britain when unemployed people were given a grant for a year, rather than having to sign on, as long as they could produce a 'business plan' and some 'accounts'. Where there is restructuring there is resistance. She simply subsidised the early rave scene, as hundreds of pill-heads opted out of work and dole office scrutiny for a year to form bands or build up their skills on the decks. At the same time, the British direct action movement became a serious headache for the state during the early nineties when it forced a serious reduction in the implementation of the Trans European Network Plan of road construction. Not surprisingly, the state stipulated that people who were ‘politically active not seeking employment’ (PANSY’S) could be flung off the dole. Where in a previous generation of left activists were abused with ‘go back to Russia’, a new generation were faced with ‘get a job’ as the state scapegoated crusty sorts. In 1997 New Labour continued the Thatcherite politics of dole restructuring, in renaming it the Job Seeker’s Allowance and deliberately setting it up to force people to take up jobs offered or face no payments. There was resistance of course with claimants groups occupying DHS offices, or operating a three strikes and your out policy, whereby particularly foul DHS Staff would have their picture and crime stuck all over their neighbourhood.

The scheme was initially aimed at putting 18-24 year olds into subsidised jobs or training, with an 'intensive job guidance and counselling' programme lasting up to 4 months, before people have to choose one of four schemes. In being forced into a job the employer gets a £60 a week subsidy to employ someone for six months at a standard wage. The job must include a one day a week training for which a grant of £750 is paid. . Full time study on an approved course for up to a year is another option, with a six month job in the voluntary sector where an organisation taking part will get paid £3,200 a person. At the same time the Department for work and pensions launched an offensive against claimants “every year we estimate that benefit cheats cost around £2 billion in stolen benefits. They are taking public money from people who really need it. The total cost of this fraud is equivalent to £80 a year from each family in Great Britain.” In a recourse to a 19th Century religious discourse, Britain was back to the idea of the ‘deserving and undeserving poor.’ At the time John Fillis, a Lancashire Labour councillor said "It's a new National Service, there is no fifth option apart from drugs, crime and homelessness." While Andrew Smith, the employment minister who over saw the New Deal’s introduction said “for fit young people, continuing on benefit is not going to be an option."

In France one of the most popular social struggles of recent years has taken place around a dole reform which meant applicants had to be in work for a minimum period of nine months. With casualised workers in the entertainment industry working in film festivals and on sets in seasonal work no longer entitled to welfare the popular imagination was captured when these ‘intermittants’ broke into a studio, occupied a newscast and broadcast their plight. With a generation who’s employment record resembles a patch work quilt of short term contracts, restructuring towards workfare has had a dramatic effect in locking young people into continuous precarious employment with no safety net between bouts of employment. Ideologically dole restructuring is a tactic of neo-liberalism, part of the privatisation of the welfare state. In the past the workhouse was a quite visible feature of oppression on the landscape. Now it’s more appropriate to speak of a ‘social workhouse’ where claimants are forced to work in subsidised jobs in the private or community sector.

Here the dole offers €153 a week, stick around for six months and that’ll be topped up with rent allowance and a medical card add on free time, and that is a standard of living few employers will offer. One student who spent three months on the dole described how “my standard of living was fine because I had plenty of food and stuff, I didn’t go hungry, it was great actually it was brilliant. I wasn’t fatigued, I was out of bed early in the morning because I knew the day was my own. I went back to german that I hadn’t done since first year in college, improved my german, I read widely in lots of various topics watched a lot of good, movies. I think ultimately you want to be employed, but there’s some level of human dignity, you don’t want to be stuck doing some Mickey mouse job under the thumb of some fat fuck that has no clue actually how to do the job, but tells you how to do it. I’d recommend it to any young person of a similar age for me just to do it in terms of, there is more to life than breaking your balls and being treated like shit for that, the three months I spent on the dole were a lot more educational, were better for my health, I improved my health, I went training and stuff, yeah it’d be a shame if the opportunity for people to go on the dole was taken away from them, I really do.”

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Soundtracksforthem specialises in iconoclastic takes on culture, politics, and more shite from the underbelly of your keyboard. A still-born group blog with a recent surge of different contributers but mainly maintained by James R. Big up all the contributers and posse regardless of churn out rate: Kyle Browne, Reeuq, Cogsy, Chief, X-ie phader/Krossie, Howard Devoto, Dara, Ronan and Mark Furlong. Send your wishes and aspirations to

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