What are the reactions of politicians and others to our criticisms regarding their experiments with benefit receivers? In the first instance they extend an invitation to discuss, to contribute to the design and implementation. If we do not accept, then they label us as ‘negative’. And if we keep on rejecting and criticising, then finally there will be a crackdown.
|The original text in Dutch
Translated by Jet
On October 21 we published an article on the “experiment of trust” with benefit receivers in Tilburg. Since we mentioned his name in the article we informed the Christian-Democrat elderman Erik de Ridder about this via Twitter. “Phew, that’s really sour. Let’s talk sometime?”, was his immediate reaction. This did not appeal to us and so we tweeted: “Immediate offer of Erik de Ridder to discuss the brutal plans regarding benefit receivers. But action is more effective.” De Ridder tweeted: “Fine, good luck with the action then.” We: “No good luck to you planning to dismantle social welfare. Social benefits should be raised!”. The elderman insisted on having the final word: “Doorbraak, thank you very much for your concern”. The title of our article was “Tilburg experiment: you cannot live on false trust and air”, and Paula Anguita who was also mentioned, reacted the next day on Twitter: “and not on negativity either…”. Later on she told a critic on Facebook: “You can bring down and despise everything in life but what has it brought you so far? Can you offer a positive alternative that works well? That makes you happy so that you would recommend it to others?” His answer among other things was to raise benefits and minimum wages, so that everyone can have a dignified existence. But that was not quite the idea of her “experiment of trust”.
It is a regular pattern that we encounter in the struggle against forced labour and other repression of benefit receivers: eldermen, managers, forced labour directors and other bosses try to encapsulate bottom-up criticism and protest, try neutralising it and if possible even benefitting from it. Unfortunately, there is little organised resistance from benefit receivers in general, and whenever it threatens to surface the politicians and managers are the first to act. “Let’s talk sometime, get involved in our plans and take part in our experiments.” They make us believe we could take part in the decision-making regarding our future, the future of welfare, about a possible basic income, and so on. There are unfortunately quite a few benefit receivers who really feel flattered and important about being allowed to participate, and who think they will indeed get a say in things. Those who subsequently decide to participate in those experiments and alternatives will be used as publicity material to sell the new repressive regimes to other welfare receivers.
In practice our influence is always restricted and we are expected to keep our thinking within the strictly defined frameworks designed by the politicians and managers. This means that increasing the benefit amounts is always out of the question and any ideas in that direction are carefully kept off the agenda. The real goal is to tap us for information: how do we manage to survive on very little money, how are we connected with each other, how do people support each other, what are the difficult areas, what are the reasons to not participate in experiments, how can we coerce people into participating in the future? When the municipality of Groningen presented its proposal of obligatory “kitchen table talks” for all benefit receivers recently, the ‘alternative’ Veranderlab (= Changelab) came with ideas to get information more effectively from the bottom up. “They propose to experiment with the talks, actually putting the primacy with the citizens, giving them the freedom to engage in a conversation or not, and to have a free choice for the location and the content of the talk. This way of working will provide a better insight into who these people are who live on benefit and how diverse they are, but also into what they are capable of and what they are doing. How do people relate to each other, in their family, in their street and neighbourhood, and towards the municipality? The neighbourhood analyses and the analysis of the overall results from the individual talks will thus provide an ‘anthropology of welfare’” (pdf, page 4).
In our view such survival information should remain among ourselves, because it will always be used against us. If for example a certain group of benefit claimants in some self-invented way succeeds in making ends meet with less money, referring to that alternative can reduce everyone’s benefit. If there is any tapping to be done it should come from above: we should gather information about their repression, about their weak points, to increase our chances of survival and our opportunities for a successful battle. But we will never obtain this kind of information by participating in their experiments on our own and unorganised. After all, that is where our opponents are fully in control, it is their terrain. At most this strategy might have some success by well-organised collaboration.
Having a good dialogue with us is essential for all experiments, and this means the Right-wing parties VVD or PVV will hardly ever be in the lead or publicly support such projects. The ‘social’ or ‘progressive’ parties and organisations are usually exactly the ones who present such experiments, set up the structures, seek contact with the welfare claimants, etc. It is our experience that GroenLinks (= Green Party) and D66 (=Democrats Party) are most often taking the lead. From a historical perspective this is their task: to turn protest, problem areas and bottom-up information into useful impulses for the continuous reform of capitalism. To increase discipline and self-discipline in order to raise the level of exploitation without any danger.
The reactions we received to our critical article “Welfare claimants in Groningen to become guinea pigs in basic income experiment?”, published in December last year, speak for themselves. In our article we objected to the plans of the Mieslab organisation. They tweeted us immediately after publication: “We think there is more agreement between us than appears from your article. Let’s have coffee sometime?”. Our response: “No coffee. Gap bigger than you think. Mieslab experiments for new phase of capitalism, we want abolition.” And regarding D66 that assigns one elderman to the initiative group: “D66 is the most pro-capitalist neo-liberal demolition party of all. They are major opponents, quite simple”. We also tweeted the following to them: “Are you surprised that we don’t want their basic income? If you really want to help us, then just advocate higher welfare” and “Not just a meagre basic income that perpetuates poverty. Clearly a top-down plan and we won’t participate.” Entrepreneur Jan Willem Wennekes from Mieslab also reacted on Twitter: “Unfortunately the writers don’t want to discuss (see previous tweets). Many figureheads in the article.” Another enthusiast Mark Vletter tweeted: “What a bad article. If you consider the future of work and income important, then you have to explore it.” He also added via our website: “Either you propose alternatives that are useful to everyone or you contribute to make the experiment more valuable”.
As soon as you tell them that you do not want to be involved in their schemes and that you have very different ideas, for example raising the benefit levels, you will be blamed for ‘negativity’ or ‘harshness’ and lack of responsibility for the future. The terminology is reminiscent of the new age movement sometimes: everyone has to participate happily and positively in discussions and experiments to explore how welfare receivers can live on less money, and how they can be moved, independently, into all kinds of underpaid jobs as soon and as cheap as possible. That would be really positive, and those who resist are negative, sour. “Of course, why would you want to talk if you can just as well sit nicely in your own corner anonymously being angry?” was the reaction of manager consultant Ronald Mulder to the Groningen article in which his name was also mentioned.
The minute you propose to battle against the plans collectively their friendliness quickly melts away. In the first phase of our battle in Leiden the then elderman Jan-Jaap de Haan (from the Christian Democrats) and the forced-labour director Bas van Drooge made remarks about our criticism being important. We were also invited to share our thoughts with them and to look at things from their position. How would we approach it if we were sitting in their chairs? But we did not want to contribute to making the system of compulsion more effective and we told them that even a serious discussion would not be possible as long as one discussion partner would be able to cut down the income of the other, or even oblige them to do forced labour. The atmosphere changed after that, and our continuous actions and criticisms resulted in a huge amount of repression, from home-delivered intimidating letters to a ban on speaking in public places (something we obviously never obeyed).
Anyone who ever started a concrete action campaign in the Netherlands will probably recognise this approach by the authorities. Encapsulation is a tested, decades old Dutch method that is certainly not reserved for the battle of the jobless. To find out if a functionary really means well it is sufficient to just make objections. To be totally honest, we have yet to meet the first one who does not slip out of his or her role and chooses repression.