The Community Wage; a Matter for Debate

Keith Rankin, 21 June 1998


Two months ago I suggested that Peter McCardle's baby - the Community Wage scheme - may not be nearly as bad as many alternative "work for the dole" or "workfare" schemes, and that it does in fact have an upside for those who embrace a future in which average paid work weeks are well below 40 hours, in which unpaid work is recognised as a social contribution, and in which a Universal Basic Income (UBI) underpins income distribution. I expanded my argument in an article for Greenweb (May 1998) headed "Subversive Compliance".

Such views have proved "disturbing" to, for example, Sue Bradford and others at the Auckland Unemployed Workers Rights Centre (AUWRC), who see the scheme as, at best, the thin end of the wedge to full-on workfare and "wage slavery".

The UBINZ Internet site now has a web page to promote debate on the Community Wage, designed to create a trail of comments about the conceptual issues surrounding terms such as "workfare" and "community wage", about the McCardle Scheme, and about the alternative means of opposing and/or subverting workfare. The AUWRC's comments are published there, along with comments from me. (Please send any further comments on material in the Community Wage dialogue page, or any further contributions to the debate to Ian Ritchie [UBINZ coordinator] or myself. Comments as short as a single sentence will be incorporated into a set of expanding multi-author documents.)

Personally, I think that opponents of something always need an alternative policy that they are for, and seen to be for. Furthermore, opposing and subverting a policy are not mutually exclusive alternatives. Opponents of a scheme have no choice but to creatively subvert it if the scheme goes ahead despite their opposition.

I am concerned that the Left, still generally thought of as the progressive force in politics, expend a lot of energy fighting for a status quo that, only a few years earlier, they vigorously opposed.

I think it is true that radicalism nowadays is mostly coming from the Right, and that the Left is increasingly conservative. That orientation may in fact be the normal order of things. In his seminal history of the evolution of industrial capitalism (The Great Transformation 1944), Karl Polanyi sees the main division in political economy between the forces of "social and national protection" (ie conservatives and socialists) and the "liberal" forces which evoke the removal of all the protections ("distortions" to them) which inhibit the evolution of the "liberal utopia"; ie the liberal system of the "self-regulating market economy". (For a French view of the NZ "reforms" that invokes Polanyi's analysis, see New Zealand, from Welfare State to Market Society; Test Tube Miracle of Total Capitalism, note 6.)

Certainly today, the liberalisers are the aggressors, and groups such as the AUWRC are the defenders. Myself, I think that counter-attack is the best form of defence. And I think that the socially-concerned Left can turn ideas from the individualist New Right on their heads. Concepts such as "community wage" and "social responsibility" have much to offer a Left that can wrest ownership of such terms away from the neoliberals for whom words like "social" and "community" do not come naturally.


Material on "workfare" can be accessed via and also from the Jobs Letter (website at ).


© 1998

Rankin File | 1998 titles