Building Popular Power in Poverty: How We Can Fight for Welfare Reforms

Anti-Poverty Action

Guest post by Iswed Tiggjan from Anarchist Communists Meanjin – Photo from APN QLD’s anti-gentrification squat in 2017

The LNP government has announced this week its planned changes to the JobSeeker payment in so-called Australia. After 27 years of no increases, they have decided to raise the dole from $40 a day all the way up to $43 a day. This leaves the payment far below the relative poverty line ($457 a week), let alone Henderson Poverty line ($550) which Anti-Poverty Network QLD argues is the minimum acceptable raise.

While this so-called ‘raise’ is pathetic and insulting, the real concern with these changes is the increase to already draconian mutual obligations forced onto the unemployed. Mutual obligations in this country have already allowed job agencies to act as prison wardens of the unemployed, threatening, lying and browbeating them into submission to ensure a desperate and pliable reserve army of labour and to coerce people into unsafe and underpaid work.

This coercive function is only going to increase further, with the announcement that the government plans to institute mandatory ‘intensive training’ for all those unemployed for over six months. Most worryingly, the government is also creating a ‘dob-in’ hotline, which will allow employers to report unemployed people to the government should they refuse ‘suitable’ work. This can then result in the suspension of payments. How is suitable work defined? Well however the government wants it to be, of course.

Even before the changes multiple members of Anti-Poverty Network QLD (APN QLD) had tales to tell about being forced into work that were physically or mentally unable to do, work that required hours and hours of public transport, or even at times work which was impossible to travel to. Eventually no doubt we’ll begin to see the government defining ‘suitable’ work as all work, no matter the circumstances, so that they can begin to force workers out to the farms to be underpaid, overworked and in many cases sexually assaulted. 

As anarchists we understand that capitalism’s illusion of being consensual and contractual is a bald-face lie, but rarely does the state make it so obvious. We are told that capitalism wants a free market – that a generation of union-smashing, casualisation and browbeating of the working class was all to encourage a flexible market where people can pick and choose jobs as they wish and leave when they want. Yet now the unemployed don’t even have the capacity to turn down unsafe work without being pushed further down into poverty and desperation. A situation we would hardly call consensual.

With changes such as these we see the real reality of capitalism. Capitalism wants a browbeaten and demoralised reserve army of labour that it can use to lower the conditions of all workers. It wants unemployed people to be so willing to get out of this system that they will accept any conditions or pay, even to the extent of crossing picket lines.

One member of APN QLD told us about their experiences in the Job Active system, which as part of their mutual obligations included mandatory training courses once a fortnight. They told us that rather than teaching anything practical these courses consisted entirely of two hours of anti-union rhetoric based around treating the boss as lord and saviour, being at their beck and call and never ever questioning them or doing anything against their wishes. It is obvious this system is designed to punish and indoctrinate people in poverty so that they can be used as a weapon against the rest of the working class.

Now with the ‘bosses dob-in line’, we’re going to see these abuses worsen, with feminist groups across Australia already raising awareness to the fact that this can and will be used as a weapon against vunerable women to coerce sex and more.

So how then can we fight back against not just these changes but the entire rotten welfare system in this country?

There are already the usual calls of putting pressure onto the Labor Party and then focusing on having them elected to effect change on behalf of those in poverty with identical calls revolving around the Greens.

But the Labor Party have shown time and time again they are no friends of those in poverty. After all, what politician is? The Greens, on the other hand, are currently incapable of reaching government. Even if they were, we can guarantee that like socialist and green parties worldwide, their politics would drift further to the right the closer they came to the halls of power. Each and every time social movements have turned in this direction they have seen themselves gutted to serve the electoral ambitions of this party or that.

There is only one answer and it is the same that it has always been when discussing how to enact massive social change. We need to build popular power in the movements and build alliances between all those affected; people in poverty, First Nations people, women, unions and so on. We need to struggle on our own terms for our own demands, not those of a political party wanting to ride us into power. Enacting change through a political party rather than building the popular power of movements means that any victories will not be our own, so promises can be broken and reforms can be rapidly rolled back. It also leads to demobilisation, as meaningful long-lasting organisation and power can’t be built that way. Following this pattern only means having to start from scratch every time we are faced with a new confrontation. It is social movements not politicians that make change. Even the LNP can be forced into accepting the movement’s demands if the movement is strong enough and militant enough.

Building popular power within militant and autonomous social movements, rather than building social movements to support political parties, means not just building the power needed to win this struggle, but the power needed to win future struggles – the power not just to relieve poverty but to end it. 

So what then can we do right now?

We can get involved in autonomous and grassroots anti-poverty organisations such as APN QLD. We can and must agitate within the rank and file of our unions to come out against these changes and join the fight to win back the rights the working class bled for in the past. We can mobilise in our communities, talk to our friends, neighbours and relatives, to strengthen the bonds of solidarity we need to overcome the discourse of powerlessness.

In short we can agitate, we can fight and we can build power. Then we can win on our own terms. 

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