on the rights and wrongs of workfare and internships

Why would you do something for someone else?

  1. Because you are in – or wish to establish or develop – a relationship.  By doing so, you wish to demonstrate your positive feelings and your worth.
  2. Because you wish to reciprocate, in order to continue a relationship.
  3. Because your morals or ethics demand that you do so, while not expecting any reciprocal act; you act out of goodness.
  4. Because you feel an obligation to do so; you feel indebted to someone.
  5. Because you feel impelled to do so from your understanding of your culture or society.
  6. Because you wish to take advantage, by doing something for selfish gain and with no intention to reciprocate.
  7. Because you are paid to do so.
  8. Because you are forced to do so through indebtedness: not a social obligation, but a form of peonage.
  9. Because you are forced to do so through threat of – or actual – violence.

You might try to classify these reasons into those where the obligation – the debt caused by your action – can be redeemed through payment of money. I would argue that for the first four it certainly can’t. You would be disappointed or insulted if money were offered in return, because accepting money  would change or devalue your original act and its purpose, and your self-image.

The use of money to settle social debts destroys social relationships, and damages esteem and virtue. The first four reasons can be called  ‘Human Debts’.

You could include reason five in the Human reasons, but as long as there is no punishment for failure other than guilt.

The neoliberal world-view admits only to reasons six and seven. All activity is to be mediated through payment ( usually referred to as “the market” or “markets”); although purely selfish acts are permissible provided they are a step to personal gain.  It can  admit reason five, but only if the prevailing cultural imperative is to act selfishly; not selflessly or to form a personal or social relationship. These, then, are the ‘Neoliberal Debts’.

Clearly – to anyone but a neoliberal – Human Debts not only exist but predominate in our social relationships. It is therefore inevitable that neoliberals use governments to create and exploit ‘Punishment Debts’ – (reasons eight and nine) as punishment for avoiding ‘the markets’.  This is why neoliberal states – although they praise deregulation and claim to protect against the evils of communism – will always massively increase surveillance and regulation of the individual and of public services, in a forlorn but increasingly violent attempt to end Human Debts.

(Of course Human Debts extend into private business as well, because we can’t help being human. Thus neoliberalism has generated managerialism, command-and-control management, management by arbitrary targets and ‘performance’: anything to deter us from interacting through Human Debts.)

Punishment Debts must have existed as long as Human Debts. The links between monetary indebtedness, debt peonage, and slavery are well established.  These are inevitably generated by inequality of power and of monetary wealth: the powerful and wealthy exact redemption of both honour and monetary debt through peonage and slavery.

So what of workfare, a compulsion by government to do something for someone in order to receive welfare; and unpaid internship?

Workfare presumes a debt is owed by the person who would receive it to the state. Someone in need of support is by definition assumed to be a burden, a moral bankrupt through their fecklessness, a failure. Workfare is Punishment Debt: as the Government exacts work for what it perceives as a debt owed to the government, or the state; usually misrepresented as a debt to people in work.

(Remember in neoliberal thinking there can be no debt to society, because society does not exist. The neoliberal state therefore has to create a fiction to replace society – like the mythical collection of “hard working people”).

The neoliberal justifies unpaid internship under reason six, as a purely selfish act. Yet this could only apply if the unpaid intern had sufficient income or wealth to act selfishly: anyone else (unless they are helping someone for reason 3) is only acting on a Punishment Debt. As with workfare, compulsion through the alternatives of poverty, penality, and public castigation are the violence threatened.

At this point, it is worth considering the complementary question to this: why would you pay anyone to work?

[The greatest influences on this post: David Graeber “Debt: The First 5000 Years” ;  Michael Sandel “What Money Can’t buy”]


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