Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Long Quote: Origins of Welfare

It is both fascinating and enraging the way these aspects of the origins of welfare continue to swirl around so close to the surface of what are ostensibly the very different social assistance regimes that are common in industrialized countries like Canada more than four and a half centuries later.

Here's the quote:

[I]n the decades between 1530 and 1560, a system of public assistance was introduced in at least sixty European towns, both by initiative of the local municipalities and by direct intervention of the central state. Its precise goals are still debated. While much of the literature on the topic sees the introduction of public assistance as a response to a humanitarian crisis that jeopardized social control, in his massive study of coerced labor, the French Marxist scholar Yann Moulier Boutang insists that its primary objective was "The Great Fixation" of the proletariat, that is, the attempt to prevent the flight of labor.

In any event, the introduction of public assistance was a turning point in the state relations between workers and capital and the definition of the function of the state. It was the first recognition of the unsustainability of a capitalist system ruling exclusively by means of hunger and terror. It was also the first step in the reconstruction of the state as the guarantor of the class relation and as the chief supervisor of the reproduction and disciplining of the work-force.

...it was with the introduction of public assistance that the state began to claim "ownership" of the work-force, and a capitalist "division of labor" was instituted within the ruling class, enabling employers to relinquish any responsiblity for the reproduction of workers, in the certainty that the state would intervene, either with the carrot or with the stick, to address the inevitable crises. With this innovation, a leap occurred also in the management of social reproduction, resulting in the introduction of demographic recording (census-taking, the recording of mortality, natality, marriage rates) and the application of accounting to social relations...

Along with this new "social science," an international debate also developed on the administration of public assistance anticipating the contemporary debate on welfare. Should only those unable to work, described as the "deserving poor," be supported, or should "able-bodied" laborers unable to find a job also be given help? And how much or how little should they be given, so as not to be discouraged from looking for work? These questions were crucial from the viewpoint of social discipline, as a key objective of public aid was to tie workers to their jobs. But, on these matters a consensus could rarely be reached.

...across differences of systems and opinions, assistance was administered with such stinginess that it generated as much conflict as appeasement. Those assisted resented the humiliating rituals imposed on them, like wearing the "mark of infamy" (previously reserved for lepers and Jews), or (in France) participating in the annual processions of the poor, in which they had to parade singing hymns and holding candles; and they vehemently protested when the alms were not promptly given or were inadequate to their needs. In response, in some French towns, gibbets were erected at the time of food distribution or when the poor were asked to work in exchange for the food they received. In England, as the 16th century progressed, receipt of public aid -- also for children and the elderly -- was made conditional on the incarceration of the recipients in "work-houses," where they became the experimental subjects for a variety of work-schemes. Consequently, the attack on workers, that had begun with the enclosures and the Price Revolution, in the space of a century, led to the criminalization of the working class, that is, the formation of a vast proletariat either incarcerated in the newly constructed work-houses and correction-houses, or seeking its survival outside the law and living in open antagonism to the state -- always one step away from the whip and the noose.

-- Sylvia Federici (original emphases; references in original)

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