Every effort was directed to making residence in this place of terror so undurable that only utmost necessity would drive human beings to seek in it a last refuge. For that was the real purpose of the new poor law...the new law saw to it that cheap labour was at the command of management and with it the possibility of constantly forcing wages lower - Rudolf Rocker
In 1834 British parliament instituted what would be called the new 'Poor Law'. These laws were set down to replace the 'old Poor Law' which had been established in the 17th century in order to provide charitable support for the poor. While the old poor laws were based on the notion that people in poverty were unfortunate victims of fate deserving of help from society, the new poor laws would be of a much harsher variety.
The new Poor Law was a nightmarish horror for the young working-class. Poverty was now deemed a crime, with the fault resting solely on the indulgent failings of the individual. Unemployment was now to be dealt with through punishment and brutality as the State sought to discipline the newly emerging working-class to better suit the needs of industrial capitalism.
The legacy of the 'Poor Law of 1834' lives on today in Australia through the JobActive system, soon to be re-christened 'WorkForces'. While on the surface our modern set of Poor Laws may seem to be of a kinder variety, the lack of overt violence doesn't lessen their systematic brutality or change their fundamental role in capitalist society - disciplining the working-class and weakening the bargaining power of the labour movement.
As much as capitalists and politicians justify the brutalities of the welfare system by pointing to 'dole bludgers', 'welfare dependents' and 'system scammers', the reality is that capitalism relies on the existence of a mass of workers who are unable to find employment at any one time.
During situations of zero (or close to zero) unemployment the worker's strength rises significantly against capital. The threat of withdrawing labour becomes much stronger and the threat of scabs more insignificant. Overall the bargaining power of the workers greatly increases. This is why the 1970s was a period of high militancy, high wages and low unemployment.
It has been well known since the 19th century that capital relies on a reserve army of labour (i.e. the unemployed) to function properly and to maximise profits. A pool of unemployed workers desperate for employment provides a means for capitalists to keep wages and conditions low, to set workers against each other in competition and to ensure a ready pool of scab labour in times of industrial dispute.
Since the 1980s the ruling classes have attempted to collaborate to ensure that the unemployment rate stays at the level they deem optimal for capital. While this may spiral out of control during a depression, it can be guaranteed it will never be allowed to drop to zero unless through concessions won through workers struggle.
No one needs to be unemployed in Australia - that is a choice made by our ruling classes. Despite this being a choice made by others and imposed on us from above, the same ruling class then sees fit to punish us with poverty level wages, punitive and coercive treatment and bureaucratic madness.
By making the experience of unemployment as dehumanising and unendurable as possible the ruling class uses welfare as an attack on the strength of the working class.
When unemployment is considered as an utter last resort, workers are pressured to accept employment no matter the wages or conditions, gradually pushing them down. When unemployment is considered unbearable workers are much more likely to endure mistreatment and abuse at work and to avoid the risks that come with rocking the boat, lest they return to the dole queue. When the experience of being unemployed means leaving your family starving and your spirit broken, then no matter your disgust at it, suddenly scabbing on a picket line becomes an understandable prospect.
To return to the quote at the beginning of this article we can see that just like in 1834, the purpose of the 21st century 'Poor Law' is to ensure "that cheap labour [is] at the command of management and with it the possibility of constantly forcing wages lower".
If the labour movement is to make progress in this country it is essential that this point is understood. For far too long, talk of the 'plight of the unemployed' has been met with scepticism in union spaces, which often regard it as a problem for unemployed people to solve themselves. It is not uncommon to come across dismissive comments of it 'not being our problem' or even that the unemployed deserve what they're getting as they're nothing more than 'scabs in waiting'.
Such rhetoric would make every boss smile if they heard it and politicians clap with glee. It means that all their propaganda efforts have not been in vain and that we've drunk the kool-aid of 'welfare dependency' to our own detriment. 'I've got mine' attitudes are the complete antithesis of the workers' movement and achieve nothing but serving the bosses' agenda.
If we're to fight for higher wages and better conditions, a fundamental starting point must be the understanding that the conditions of all workers - both employed and unemployed - are tightly intertwined. We cannot win better working conditions without simultaneously conquering better conditions for the unemployed, but by winning better conditions for the unemployed our capacity to win better working conditions increases.
Australia's current welfare system is an attack on every worker. It should be fought against in the interests of every worker. While the incoming Labor government has announced the scrapping of the Cashless Welfare Card, they have remained adamant that they will not be reviewing the rate of the dole, which remains under the poverty level. The interests of the Australian Labor party lay with capital and we can guarantee that they will not be making changes to the punitive unemployment system against the wishes of capital. If we wish to see genuine welfare reform it will have to be conquered by our own self-activity and struggle.
Working-class people must realise that their interests are fundamentally intertwined against those of the bosses. A militant and united working-class is a strong working-class. We cannot separate the conditions of the unemployed from workers in work. To end with a famous union slogan that shouldn't be forgotten - touch one, touch all.