Though last week’s opening of the Dutch parliament may have caught some eyes for reason of King Willem-Alexander’s maiden public appearance, others will have noted the extensive austerity measures announced in the Netherlands. Under the watchwords of sustainability and responsibility, Willem-Alexander after all outlined major Government cuts to social expenditure and even declared the Dutch welfare state’s end. Such a development is particularly significant. The Netherlands has provided citizens with generous employment and social security rights for more than sixty years, and indeed has been considered a standard bearer of the so-called European social model. The Dutch case is alas far from unique in today’s Europe. From the EU’s western to eastern borders, numerous reforms have cut welfare budgets and deregulated labour markets. These measures have ranged from the extremely draconian (Mediterranean and Baltic countries) to the comparatively mild (Scandinavia and central Europe), yet to some degree have touched all European countries.
Reforms of this sort are admittedly not new. Since the onset of neoliberalism in the 1980s and globalization in the 1990s, numerous attempts have been made to make the European social model more flexible. The crisis has all the same accelerated this process. Exerting extreme competitive pressure on firms and severe fiscal pressure on Governments, hard economic times have prompted firms to implement wage and job cuts and Governments to impose swingeing public cuts. Some of the forces grinding down the European social model are nonetheless newer ones. EU/IMF austerity programmes introduced in response to debt crisis have imposed misery on Europe’s Mediterranean and Ireland, and the role of bond markets in prompting austerity has lately come to the fore.
In the light of such developments, debates about the European social model’s feasibility are being revisited. Although ‘free-market’ economists have anticipated the European social model’s erosion for years, more leftward thinkers have generally insisted on such systems’ viability. These researchers’ ideas, the most famed of which is the ‘Varieties of Capitalism‘ theory, posit that certain economies draw competitive advantage from elevated social standards. The crisis seems to throw a spanner into the works of such approaches. So severe has austerity been in the likes of Greece and Spain, the notion that these countries possess a distinguishing social model appears more and more a bad joke. Similar developments can be detected in central Europe and Scandinavia. Though in such countries liberalization programmes are more modest in scope, an incremental shift away from socially-minded policies is nonetheless unmistakable.
The time for obituaries may not be quite at hand, yet for my money we are indeed witnessing the European social model’s slow demise. So diverse are the sources from which it is assaulted and so multiple are the national contexts in which these developments occur, post-war social models seem condemned to wither to shadows of their former selves. This in turn begs the question of what shall succeed them. The growth of large-scale ‘insider-outsider’ divides, in which precarious ‘outsiders’ are excluded from the welfare state’s remit, is one possible scenario and to a degree already exists in certain European countries. This seems unsustainable on a larger scale however. The superior conditions of ‘insiders’ in part rely on such citizens’ numerical superiority; should ‘outsiders’ reach a critical mass it is probable welfare provision will erode for all. Perhaps more likely is the retention of the European social model’s basic institutions, but increasingly as ’empty shells’. Certain welfare programmes and trade union rights in other words may in name endure, but poverty and precarity will in reality overcome the model’s traditional working class beneficiaries. The prospect of such pauperization including the likes of Willem-Alexander (who incidentally last week took a pay cut that leaves him with a mere €817,000 per year), is another matter altogether.
So great is the quantity of benefit scroungers loitering on corners near my house, the problem of welfare dependence can scarcely concern me less than the most diligent Tory MP. Why should the unemployed be subsidized with my hard-earned tax money? My petrol and golf rounds do not pay for themselves, and I find myself sharing the disgust that has gripped politician and common man alike. After months of hard thought I have nonetheless devised a cunning plan. It is an ingenious one if I do say so myself, for at a stroke it would resolve benefit dependency, improve the country’s economic position, and go some way towards putting right a crisis in another part of the world. The solution would involve hard work for benefit claimants, yet would provide them with customer facing experience (with representatives of a Mr B. al-Assad) in a fast-moving international environment (Syria). Not that work with such a demanding client base would be performed ill-equipped. Claimants’ profiles would be enhanced with explosive devices discretely fitted to their persons, calibrated to maximize initial customer impression.
‘Benefit bombers’ would advance the Government’s foreign policy. Even if lily-livered Labour MPs have blocked the Prime Minister’s plans to bomb Assad by conventional means, the pursuit of British interests in the Syrian crisis remains a matter of urgency. Benefit bombers could fit just this bill. Attired in hoodies and trackie bottoms and thus likely to escape international observers’ prying eyes, armed benefit claimants could be deposited by land and air to discretely blast Assad loyalists to smithereens. Such people’s habit of congregating on street corners, lamented though it is by my neighbours and me, would allow for maximum surprise. Humanitarian objections would admittedly be voiced but this is bleeding heart piffle. Life expectancy on a Manchester or Glasgow sink estate is not much higher than the likely longevity of such bombers, and death in service of Queen and country trumps expiry by means of clogged arteries or cirrhotic liver.
Military benefits aside, the idea’s real advantages lie in getting the unemployed off their backsides and onto their bikes. The prospect of action in Syria would at a stroke make the prospect of the dole a less appealing one. Should the scroungers loitering near my house know a real day’s grind must be done in exchange for their £56.80 a week, they would likely find a real job at the double. Those ending up in Syria would learn the value of hard work. The commute to the Middle East would teach the importance of mobility and work as a live detonation device the value of resourcefulness; chance survivors would forever foreswear afternoon happy hours for the industrious working habits that once made this country great.
My idea would also at last deliver the taxpayer value for money. Rather than idling away watching repeats of The Jeremy Kyle Show and Judge Judy at your and my expense, benefit claimants would finally be made to earn their crust like the rest of us. Rush hour on the Northern Line differs little from a Damascus warzone, and if regular workers can endure it then so can the unemployed. Benefit bombers would additionally help put the country on a sound fiscal footing. High attrition rates associated with such work would minimize long-term benefit claimants, and international lenders would likely react well to the plan. Government culls of dinner and lolly-pop ladies have immeasurably improved Britain’s credibility with bond markets, and the country’s burgeoning recovery would be bolstered by further savings on welfare expenditure.
I am confident this all amounts to a workable idea. My suggestions would advance our interests in the Middle East, improve the economy, and most importantly appease the millions of hard-working Brits scandalized by abuse of the benefit system. I shall forego any consultancy fee I am due in the name of the Big Society; my sole ambition is the Government’s immediate implementation of my modest proposal.
I shall not here divulge the employer, but whilst a student I was employed as a cash-in-hand worker in a small firm in the food service sector. Every morning in the holidays I would rise at four and commence work half an hour later; invariably greeted with the frenetic work schedule common in the sector and occasionally with threats of violence to my person. Though the weekly hundred pounds cash and the odd free bacon bap meant I found this in the short-term sufferable, persisting with my studies is not a decision I regret. I count myself fortunate to have been afforded a way out of such employment, but what is apparent is that increasing numbers of my fellow citizens are not. By this I do not mean that workers are being press-ganged into four am starts and force-fed bacon rolls, but rather that the twenty-first century employee’s lot is ever more one of labour market precarity.
For whether such labour takes the form of fixed-term, agency, or undeclared employment, today’s economy is increasingly characterized by insecure, exploitative forms of work. There is no better example of this tendency than recent disclosures of Sports Direct and McDonald’s widespread use of zero-hour contracts. Such precarious contractual forms, that afford firms enhanced flexibility and workers diminished security, are more and more being availed of by firms under competitive pressure. This trend is also not merely limited to low-paying sectors. Precarious work is progressively spreading to white-collar occupations; the most egregious recent example of which was the University of Liverpool’s proposals to fire its 3,000 strong workforce and re-employ them on inferior, flexible contracts. Though particularly advanced in English-speaking countries, labour market precarity is far from confined to the likes of Britain and the United States. Stricken by debt crisis and in some cases chafing under the IMF’s yoke, countries in Europe’s Mediterranean region are increasingly availing of precarious employment to stave off financial pressures. Such work also proliferates in countries as relatively advanced as Germany. The German trade union Verdi thus recently lifted the lid on the appalling pay and conditions endured by the country’s agency workers; the union’s investigations revealing the abuse of such labour in several sectors.
Precarious work and the employees vulnerable to it is thus a topic rapidly being registered on the public radar, yet two very important elements are often overlooked in this debate. The first is that there are good reasons for considering such work ‘normal’ in capitalist societies. The left recurrently accuse the right of selectively harking back to the 1950s in fields such as anti-social behaviour and family policy, yet this is a tendency they are to some extent culpable of in the socio-economic sphere. The jobs common in the post-war decades, permanent and open-ended with regular hours and decent conditions, are after all still held up as ‘typical’ in debate on this matter. This notion is problematic. The post-war decades were after all preceded by a century and a half of capitalism in which work was typically nasty, brutal and short in duration, and developments since the onset of neoliberalism in the 1980s have merely pulled it back in this direction. We should in other words expect work in capitalist societies to be precarious; that is the nature of a system in which the employee is merely availed of as an object of value extraction.
The second is the problematic nature of the relationship between regular workers and their precarious counterparts. Emerging research, at the vanguard of which is an excellent recent edited collection addressing what the authors call labour market ‘dualization’, indeed shows that precarious work is often the by-product of the influence of workers with more secure livelihoods. Because such ‘insiders’ are typically well-organized and consequently able to secure generous employment and social security arrangements, conditions at the labour market’s edges correspondingly deteriorate. Trade unions are complicit in this. Though many do a sterling job in campaigning for precarious workers’ rights, most also represent ‘insider’ workers disproportionately and are thus instrumental in maintaining this status quo. Unions in continental Europe are particularly associated with this. Mercifully however, there is indication that precarious workers are mobilizing and becoming as organized as their securer counterparts. Workers in the US fast food sector, evidently as disaffected with the sector’s inhumane conditions as I was all those years ago, indeed went on strike last week over their abysmal wages. Such developments suggest the stirring of a global ‘precariat’ class, and rather put to shame my own youthful torpidity.