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Barely a week passes these days in the UK without a new story and controversy over the Coalition government’s changes and cuts to welfare. One controversial feature is what policy wonks call ‘conditionality’: making eligibility conditional on some prescribed activity (usually) related to work. Most controversial is ‘workfare’: requirements that benefit recipients work full-time while receiving benefits rather than a wage. Many have compared workfare, in this sense, to slavery.

Those of us on the left know we oppose workfare in this sense. But this is only one kind of conditionality. What about conditionality more generally?

The left and conditionality

At the Conservative party conference in 2010, speaking as the new Prime Minister, David Cameron explained the supposed philosophy behind his government’s welfare changes: ‘If you cannot really work, we will look after you. But if you can work, but refuse to work, we will not let you live off the hard work of others.’

Stated as a general principle, many thinkers of the left would emphatically agree with this.

Take the case of the Spanish anarchist, Isaac Puente. Puente’s Libertarian Communism was published in 1932. It was adopted as the platform of the anarcho-syndicalist trade union, the CNT, in 1936, just prior to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

Puente says that ‘libertarian communism’ will ‘bring into common ownership everything that goes to make up the wealth of society…’ and at the same time ‘make it a common obligation that each contribute to…production according to their energies and talents…’ with the resulting output distributed according to need (p.28).

Puente clarifies what is involved in making contribution to production a ‘common obligation.’ In rural areas: ‘Whosoever refuses to work for the community (aside from the children, the sick, and the old) will be stripped of their other rights: to deliberate [in the local council] and to consume’ (p.43). Meanwhile, in the towns, unions will issue each worker with a ‘producer’s pass-book.’ The pass-book will include details about consumption needs (‘for instance, size of family’) but ‘the number of days and hours worked will also be noted in these pass-books.’ The pass-book entitles the worker to goods and services. ‘The only persons exempted from this requirement will be children, the aged, and the infirm’ (p.44).

This sounds like quite a strong form of conditionality for those deemed capable of working. Turn up to the local store to get some food without the requisite stamps in your ‘producer’s pass-book’ and you could get turned away or limited in what you may take home. Shirk work in the countryside and you will lose your rights to consume and to participate in communal decision-making.

Puente’s position is not that unusual amongst theorists of the left. Rosa Luxemburg stated in 1918 that: ‘Only somebody who performs some useful work for the public at large…can be entitled to receive from society the means for satisfying his needs’, a rule from which ‘small children, the aged and sick are exempted’.

Going further back, to the Diggers of the English Civil War, we find Gerrard Winstanley rebuking those, able to work, who share in the fruits of work without labouring. Those who do this should first be ‘reproved’; then, if they persist, ‘whipped’; and, finally, ‘delivered into the task-master’s hand…’ (See Chapter 6 of the Law of Freedom, in particular Winstanley’s proposed law number 17.)

So , to be true to itself, should the left just warmly embrace conditionality and support the Coalition government’s policies on this matter?


It is certainly the case that many thinkers of the left affirm a basic principle of reciprocity. If you share in the fruits of your fellow citizens’ labours, and you are able to work yourself, then you should reciprocate the efforts of fellow citizens with efforts of your own. It is wrong to ‘free-ride’ on the efforts of others. This is a widely shared moral precept. Sam Bowles and Herbert Gintis argue that a demand for reciprocity of this kind (though combined with what they term ‘basic needs generosity’) is hard-wired into us as social beings.

However, a great deal depends on exactly how we elaborate this principle of reciprocity. There are at least four key points around which left and right approaches to reciprocity – and hence conditionality – differ. I’ll try to summarise these points and then consider what they imply for a better, fairer politics of welfare.

Reciprocity applies to the economic system as a whole – not just ‘welfare’

Whenever David Cameron makes a speech in which he attacks the way welfare benefits allegedly enable people to get something for nothing, one reaction on the left is to say something like: ‘Who is this person with millions of pounds of inherited wealth to lecture anybody about ‘something for nothing’?’

This gets to the first point. It is not reasonable to frame reciprocity failure –  ‘something for nothing’ – as confined to the welfare system (if, indeed, it is a problem in the present welfare system). We need to think of reciprocity and reciprocity-failure in relation to the economy as a whole. (Laurie Penny makes a similar point about the rhetoric of ‘entitlement’ in her response to David Cameron’s June speech on welfare.)

There are plenty of ways – quite legal and respectable ways – one can get something for nothing in a capitalist economy. You can, if you have the right kind of luck, live off inherited wealth. You can enjoy capital gains on property that appreciates in value without you lifting a finger. You can be paid a salary well in excess of the value of what you actually contribute to production.

The Edwardian Liberal, Leonard T. Hobhouse, put the basic point particularly well:

The moralist…is concerned lest we should insist too much on rights and too little on duties….The only doubt is whether the stern disciplinarians who insist on self-support fully realise the revolutionary nature of their doctrine. If a system is wrong which maintains an idle man in bare necessaries, a system is much more wrong which maintains an idle man in great superfluity, and any system which allows the inheritance of wealth on the great scale is open to criticism on this score.

Reciprocity is itself conditional

Once we reframe the issue of reciprocity in terms of the economic system as a whole, a further point looms into view.

Nobody (surely?) thinks that slaves are obliged to work in a slave society. The condition of slavery makes the society fundamentally unjust and people cannot be said to have duties to work – indeed,enforceable duties to work – in a society that is so obviously unjust to them.

In other words, if, as citizens, we have a moral obligation to our fellow citizens to work, then this can only be in the context of a society that is sufficiently just to us in other important respects. Otherwise the duty to work becomes a duty to comply with one’s own exploitation.

This means that any reciprocity-based duty to work is itself conditional. If Smith owes her society a duty to make a productive contribution, she owes it if and when her society offers her sufficiently fair rewards and opportunities to work.

Many on the left will argue that the background structure of opportunity and reward in present-day UK society is unfair. On, say, a Rawlsian view of fairness, our society almost certainly has not attained anything like ‘fair equality of opportunity’ in access to education and jobs. Nor has it arranged rewards so as to maximise the prospects of the worst-off group in the labour market. Isn’t further action in these areas morally prior to enforcement of duties in the welfare system? In a society with a lot of background injustice, tighter conditionality risks weakening the bargaining power of disadvantaged workers and thereby compounding the injustice they suffer (as emphasised by Richard Seymour).

This has particular relevance for sick and disabled people. Our society currently configures workplaces and job packages in ways that make it harder for sick and disabled people to do jobs (as Sue Marsh discusses in a recent article launching a new campaign, #DisabilitysNotWorking). We are very far from equality of opportunity. Nevertheless, as a society we have pressed ahead with changes to the benefits system which put great pressure on sick and disabled people to get into jobs. We are enforcing contribution without first establishing a fair context for the demanded contribution.

Reciprocity matters as part of something bigger

A third thought emerges from what I have just said.

In a recent presentation on the future of social security, Kate Bell and Declan Gaffney make the point that social insurance is not only about reciprocity but about something bigger: solidarity.

Reciprocity matters at all, I would argue, precisely because it is itself an aspect of solidarity. Someone who tries to live in a society by taking and not contributing (when they have the ability and opportunity to contribute) is in an important way out of solidarity with their fellow citizens.

The bigger, background value of solidarity, however, also shapes and limits reciprocity.

This is why reciprocity is not to be thought of as strict ‘tit for tat’: getting just what you ‘put in’ and no more, no less. People have unequal capacities to ‘put in’ and solidarity requires that we try to even out some of this in what people get back for their work. Reciprocity, in the context of solidarity, is more a matter of ‘doing one’s bit’ than of ‘tit for tat’. Ideally, we would each put in according to ability and take out according to need.

Reciprocity is not just about employment

Much discussion of conditionality assumes that ‘contribution’ – what we do to reciprocate – is the same as ‘work’ which, in turn, is the same as ‘employment’.

But notions like ‘work’, ‘employment’ and ‘contribution’ have a much more complicated relationship than this. There is, for instance, a huge amount of care work in our society which is unpaid. But would anyone really want to deny that it is a vital contribution to meeting human needs?

The ways in which we contribute to our society are plural and not reducible to having a job. As Sue Marsh has recently argued, sick and disabled people make all kinds of valuable contributions to society that do not take the form of having a job. Ellie Mae O’Hagan has similarly argued against overvaluing paid work. Of course, employment is important, not least for sustaining a generous welfare state. But it should not set the limit of how we think about ‘contribution.’

A different politics of welfare?

What is the upshot of these points?

Here are some possible political responses (I’m sure there are more):

Oppose all conditionality. The whole issue of contribution is so contentious it is perhaps best to take a firm stand against more or less all conditionality. This leads us in the direction of ideas likeCitizen’s Income: an income grant paid to all as a right of citizenship with no test of contribution (or means).

Conditionality is conditional. We should accept some conditionality but try to make a political and policy link to other measures that address background injustices. The message should be something like this: ‘People receiving welfare benefits do have responsibilities and benefits should be conditional on meeting them. But they should also have better job opportunities, better wages, and more dignity at work in return for meeting their responsibilities to find jobs. And if securing these improvements costs money, then let us pay for them by fairer taxation of those enjoying unearned wealth, e.g., through a land value tax and a better designed capital gains tax.’

Democratise conditionality. A third approach is what one might call ‘Democratise conditionality’. Those who stand to be directly affected by conditionality rules should have a much greater voice in determining their content. As the Spartacus report showed, existing processes of consultation around benefits reform are far too weak. This approach would seek to make them much stronger, ultimately shifting from ‘consultation’ to something like co-determination.

Democratisation also has an important public-facing aspect. It is not just about affected groups talking to ‘policy-makers’ but to the wider public. Bluntly, it is about educating us all about the realities of life on welfare benefits and about conditionality. Personal testimony, e.g., in the blogging of Bendy Girl and Sue Marsh, is one aspect of this.

End ‘nothing for something’. Punitive conditionality policies feed off an ‘us and them’ perception of welfare: they – ‘the benefit scroungers’ – get it, while we – the ‘respectable taxpayers’ – don’t. In their recent report, mentioned above, Bell and Gaffney suggest that one way to tackle this perception is to redevelop a contributory social security system in which those making national insurance contributions into the scheme receive clearer benefits for their own contributions. This might enhance the sense of the welfare state as a system into which we all put in and from which we all take out, rather than a system of stigmatised transfers to the (‘undeserving’) poor.

Which of the approaches should the left adopt?

The Citizen’s Income route has many attractions and deserves wider discussion. But it faces major political problems, not the least of which is the fact that conditionality is popular.

An alternative is to try to combine the other three approaches. This is also compatible, of course, with outright and uncompromising opposition to specific kinds of conditionality (such as ‘workfare’).

Central to the success of any approach is the continued development of effective, educative campaigns rooted in the experience of benefit recipients themselves.

The challenge is to move the question away from the punitive ‘What do they [the ‘benefit scroungers’] owe to us [respectable taxpayers]?’ to ‘What do we, as citizens, owe to each other?’

Dr Stuart White is a Fellow and Tutor in Politics at Jesus College, Oxford. 

This post originally appeared on the website of the New Left Project. It is republished here with their permission under the Creative Commons licence.



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  1. Jill.
    October 11, 2012 at 7:32 pm — Reply

    This makes sense to me & I wish you were the MP here instead of Camoron. I doubt very much you would be able to sell it to Cameron & his cronies because all they are interested in is wealth, namely their wealth & don’t give a damn about those without. Very good article though.

  2. Pavlos Eleftheriadis
    October 30, 2012 at 6:44 pm — Reply

    The lucky son does not get something for nothing. He inherits because he is lucky. It is not morally irrelevant. After all one’s parents can disinherit them (at least in the common law world). Being given money from taxation is not the same luck, becuase it involves political institutions that should, ideally, be just. Conditionality is an argument for justice and fairness. In effect, the lazy are not the ‘least well off’. I see no argument why they should be subsidised by the rest of us. The difficulty is of course establishing who is lazy and who is not and the process of findig out may be humiliating and unjust. But the problem is not in the principle of conditionality. The Left should endose it, at least as an aim.

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