The British government has recently decided to strengthen the conditions for the unemployed people to receive public help. This measure fits in the austerity plan backed by Prime Minister David Cameron to restore the budget balance, at the expense of the social conditions of the weak and also of consumption and investment. Moreover, policies imposing sanctions on unemployed people belong to a general shift in public policies across Europe, moving “from welfare to workfare”. As part of the Lisbon strategy, implemented since 2000, the European Union promotes “active social policies”, which insist upon the duties of the recipients of public services, especially unemployment benefits. Constraints are imposed to limit the access to public help, which is no longer considered as a right due to the citizens.
In a sense, compelling people not to refuse more than two job offers relies on a purely statistical perception of employment. Indeed, it means that all jobs are equivalent, that they constitute a uniform mass of work. Each economic agent must hold a position on the labor market, regardless of the quality and the specificities of that position. Whereas, most people who decide to remain on the dole (a minority compared with those who simply cannot find a job) are not lazy, but are looking for a profession which matches their skills and their preferences.
This kind of measures are based on a vision of society which seems to ignore that unemployment in itself is an alienation, and not a leisure chosen rationally by the individual. Social integration and self esteem in our modern capitalistic societies rely on labor. Leaving the world of work often results in social disqualification. Unemployment is a socially penalizing stigma. By focusing on the responsibility of the jobless person in this situation, these policies strengthen the feeling of guilt and the moral condemnation of society.
The active social policies play a part in a general strategy of punishing the poor. Paradoxically, the victims of inequalities are blamed for them. Individuals are considered as responsible for their unemployment, because they do not want to work. The liberal and conservative ideology behind these proposals completely neglects the macroeconomic causes of unemployment. Liberal and conservative rulers claim that working or not working is simply a question of rational choice and free will; they seem to omit that it must be related to a general slowdown in production and consumption, to the lack of innovation and vocational training, to the competition with a low-paid workforce from developing countries, and also to the fact that the modern economy of communication and information, of finance and high-tech, may not need a multitude of disciplined and always available workers. Above all, these discourses and measures relieve the government and the collectivity from any liability towards the lowest, and they justify massive cuts in the budget for social protection.
The classical liberal state repudiated any intervention in the economy, and was merely confined to the protection of private property and the guarantee of public order. On the contrary, the welfare state intervened strongly in the economy, in order to improve the general standard of living and to promote the integration of citizens in the socioeconomic network. Modern capitalism is shaping a new state, which intervenes directly, not to protect individuals, but to force them to be competitive and autonomous.