Home > benefits, cuts, local government, Workfare > Surplus Value or Surplus to Requirements

Surplus Value or Surplus to Requirements

You know how capitalism works, right? In simple terms a capital outlay is made in the hope that the returns will outweigh the ‘investment’. A worker paid £10 an hour will produce £50 worth of goods, overheads account for another £20, which leaves the capitalist with £20 profit or ‘surplus value’.

The idea of surplus value used to be seen as applicable only within private enterprise but as the neoliberal project has blossomed over the past few decades the idea that people are work units only to be measured in terms of output has spread into the public sector where private sector methods of evaluation are now the norm. Woe betide the dept head where his dept has failed to fulfill quotas, meet targets or made a spreadsheet look untidy. From hospitals to housing cost efficiency is the new god and pity any individual who doesn’t conform to a well paid consultant’s ‘efficiency’ analysis.

A glaring example of this has been offered this week by the news that Jobcentres are setting targets for the number of claimants to be sanctioned. Jobcentre managers talk of being under pressure from above to increase the number of sanctions imposed, and thereby reduce the ‘investment’ of unemployment benefits. The managers state that they themselves are in danger of having sanctions in the form of disciplinary measures imposed on them and so make the same threat to the frontline workers. This reminds me of the housing dept I used to work in where quotas were introduced regarding the number of homeless applicants accepted as being in priority need – should one of the homelessness workers go over that quota they would receive a bollocking and threats regarding their ‘capability’ to perform their role.

This all assumes that the services provided by the public sector can be quantified in the same way that a cost per unit analysis can be applied to the manufacture of a pair of shoes which is, of course, utter nonsense. All actions must now produce a surplus value. Listen to politicians speaking of the ‘something for nothing culture’; where unemployment benefits were once seen as a necessary safety net while looking for work they are now portrayed as being something that should be worked for and thousands of people are placed in workfare posts where their surplus value to the companies involved far outweighs their benefit, or capital outlay.

We are increasingly subject to rhetoric that portrays claimants of any benefit as being non-productive burdens on the state and in essence poor value for money; in this neoliberal world where all is monetized you must either provide a profit or be condemned and placed outside of decent society where ‘hard working families’ are ‘doing the right thing’. In his book ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, George Orwell relies on the ‘hospitality’ of the casual wards of workhouses wherein he was made to work for his food and shelter, such as it was. How long before we see workhouses being reintroduced?

Orwell also told how ‘patrons’ of the casual wards would be given ‘meal tickets’ that could be exchanged for food in nominated establishments. This brings me to the news that the social fund, in place for emergencies and crisis loans that would be paid back, is seemingly being replaced by a similar meal ticket system. If, for example, you live in Birmingham and desperately need a new bed or fridge, you will now be given vouchers to be used in Asda. This huge corporation, owned by anti-union gun runners, Walmart, having profited from its use of Workfare placements is now able to profit even further from the public purse. And what of the diverse needs of people who have to claim extra help, or the loss in income to local high streets? Pfft, it’s not efficient, right? Orwell wrote of how the establishments where the meal tickets could be exchanged would often provide less than the value of the ticket – to suggest that organisations such as Asda or Tesco might now be considering how to maximise the value to them of local authority vouchers would be unfair of me, I’m sure.

A by product of being allocated vouchers rather than money is that your need will become more visible and in this current climate the danger of stigmatization is all too real. How many people will do without rather than risk being labelled as a scrounger or cheat? It’s another method of putting us in our place, of delineating those with value and those without. I remember being in a Tesco in Tottenham at a time when vouchers were given to asylum seekers and the look of pure contempt on a checkout worker’s face as she took some from the woman in front of me – continue down ths path and we may as well just start sewing coloured patches onto peoples’ clothing.

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