'Personalised conditionality': observations on active proletarianisation in late modern Britain.

Author:Grover, Chris


This paper is concerned with the idea of 'personalised conditionality', part of social security policy that it has been argued seeks to ensure that what is demanded of workless working-age claimants in attempting to secure paid employment takes account of their individual situation--an approach in benefit policy that does not treat claimants according to 'the benefit that they were on or the group they are in' (Gregg, 2008: 84), but is 'tailored to the individual and meet[ing] their circumstances and needs' (2008:13). The paper focuses on this issue by examining the idea of 'personalised conditionality' in the work of its main architect, Gregg (2008), and the even more recent thoughts of the Coalition government on the need for a personalised regime of conditionality, which is reflected in the pathways through its flagship policy, the Work Programme (itself a development of the previous Labour government's Flexible New Deal). For the Coalition government, the Work Programme 'represents a step change for Welfare to Work ... creating a structure that treats people as individuals and allows providers greater freedom to tailor the right support to the individual needs of each customer' (Department for Work and Pensions, 2012).

There is a growing body of literature focusing upon work-related conditionality. The work of Griggs and Evans (2010) points to both the impact and contextual studies of it. In the case of the former, studies have examined the effects of conditionality on labour markets and participation in them (for example, Lee et al., 2004; Peck, 2007; Wu, 2008) and the effects of sanctions upon child welfare (for instance, Paxson and Waldfogel, 2003). In the case of contextual studies, research has focused on subjects that include claimant knowledge and awareness of sanctions (for example, Dorsett, 2008; Goodwin, 2008; Joyce and Whiting, 2006; Legard et al., 1998; Peters and Joyce, 2006; Smith, 1998) and administrative issues in sanctioning, including studies of the characteristics of those who are subjected to it (Cheng, 2009; Fein and Lee, 1999; Kalil et al.; 2002, Meyers et al.; 2006, Pavetti et al.; 2003, Schram et al., 2009). In addition, there is a body of literature (for example, Deacon, 2004; Dwyer, 2004; Fitzpatrick, 2005) that examines the philosophical basis for mandating claimants to do certain things in return for state-sponsored benefits and services.

This literature is important in understanding conditionality because it points to the individual and socio-economic impacts of it, as well as more abstracted issues that attempt to understand justifications of why access to social welfare benefits might be accompanied by demands made of their recipients. However, the literature is limited because although much of it is or could be related to the strategic concerns and needs of capitalism--for instance, the constitution of low-wage, casualised labour markets and workers--it is not conceptualised in such a way. In contrast, any problems with conditionality are conceptualised as being of an administrative and technical nature that with some tweaking can be rectified. Such an approach, however, is flawed, because no matter how much 'tweaking' of this kind is done, the economic imperatives, framed by the needs of capital, are never questioned. In contrast, in this paper we focus upon the most recent explication--'personalised conditionality'--of conditionality as a means of the active proletarianisation (Offe, 1984).

Active proletarianisation: a historical legacy of disciplining workless people

Nature does not produce on the one side owners of money or commodities, and on the other men possessing nothing but their own labour-power. This relation has no natural basis ... It is dearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older forms of social organisation. (Marx, 1974: 166)

These observations of Marx led Novak (1988: 29) to conclude that there is 'nothing "natural" or inevitable about wage labour, although much effort has gone into making it appear as such'. In this context, we can point to a raft of social institutions, from education to religion and from trade unions to the representatives of capital, that are engaged in processes of making wage labour appear 'natural' (cf. Peck, 1996). Our focus, however, is upon a specific set of institutional processes--those related to the state's provision of social security benefits--designed to ensure that individuals sell their labour power to fund their and, if they have one, their family's, social reproduction.

The work of Offe (1984) is particularly useful in understanding such processes. Offe (1984: 92) notes:

The process of capitalist industrialization is accompanied ... by the disorganization and mobilization of labour power. The spread of relations of competition to national and then world markets, the continued introduction of labour-saving technical changes, the undermining of agrarian labour and forms of life, the impact of cyclical crises; these and other factors effectively destroy, to a greater or lesser extent, the hitherto prevailing conditions of the utilization of labour power. The individuals affected by such events find that their own labour capacities--whose conditions of utilization they control neither collectively nor individually--can no longer serve as the basis of their subsistence. The events in many Western capitalist economies since 2007 demonstrate the pertinence of Offe's observations, for it is clear that such economic crises can have a long-term impact upon the ability of individuals to sell their labour power. Such processes--what Offe describes as 'passive proletarianisation'--are a central and continuous feature (from micro to macro level crises) of capitalism. However, it is the potential reaction to such crises that Offe highlights as creating tensions, for he observes that those people unable to sell their labour power because of such processes do not 'automatically hit upon the solution to their problems by alienating their labour power to a third party in exchange for money. Individuals do not automatically enter the supply side of the labour market' (1984). It is this process--the offering of the sale of labour power--that Offe describes as 'active proletarianisation', and it is a process to which the state is central: 'We propose the thesis that the wholesale and complete transformation of dispossessed labour power into active wage-labour was not and is not possible without state policies' (1984: 93, original emphasis). This is because, rather than being the obvious solution to the subsistence problems of workless people, there is:

a range of functionally equivalent 'escape routes' from passive proletarianization ... migration in order to re-establish a now-destroyed independent existence elsewhere; the securing of subsistence through more or less organised forms of plunder; the flight to alternative economic and life-forms ...; the reduction of the level of subsistence to the point that begging and private charity suffice for survival; the extension of the phase prior to entry into the labour market, so that there is a stretching of the phase of adolescence, either within the family system or, more often, through the institutions of the formal educational system; offensive efforts to root out the causes of passive proletarianisation ..., or the development of political movements ... whose goal is the liquidation of the commodity form of labour power itself (1984: 93). Offe is right to point both to the fact that there is nothing inevitable about active proletarianisation, and to the state's role in encouraging it. Workless people sell their labour power because they have to, in a process that has been framed by various approaches at different points in history: for example, in the branding, flogging, whipping and even killing of vagabonds in the 16th century (Beier, 1985); the 'bridewells' (houses of correction) that existed between the 16th and 19th centuries as sites of 'punishment and reformation' for those 'guilty of no more than petty delinquencies considered to be especially characteristic of the poor: "idle and disorderly" behaviour of various kinds' (Innes, 1987: 42); the deliberately degrading and stigmatising workhouse and labour tests of the New Poor Law (for example, Quigley, 1996); instructional and training centres (or 'slave camps' and 'concentration camps' as they were described by some) designed in the 1930s to (re)introduce men to the alleged moral benefits of paid work (Hannington, 1937; King, 1999); and administrative devices that include the 'genuinely seeking work test' of the 1920s (Deacon, 1976), the Wage Stop of the post-Second World War period (Elkes, 1974), and the more recent introduction of the Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) and the various New Deals (Jones and Novak, 1999).

The means by which 'non-wage-labourers are transformed into wage-labourers' (Offe, 1984: 92) has changed. The body of the workless poor is no longer marked as it was in previous years, and such people are no longer incarcerated just for their worklessness. (1) Nevertheless, they are still subjected to policies that are designed to do the same thing: to ensure that people sell their labour power, rather than finding other ways of securing their subsistence. The latest incarnation of such concerns, and one on which, broadly speaking, the main political parties in Britain agree, is 'personalised conditionality': a means through which in the future, greater pressure will be placed on greater numbers of workless people to make their labour available to capital.

'Personalising' conditionality

The concept of 'personalisation' is one that in recent years has become visible across a range of social policy areas and interventions that include adult social care, education and health (see, for example, Cutler et...

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