The Florence Johnston Collective is a new group of both U&S and non U&S members in New York City struggling around “reproductive” work; or work that’s primary function is not to make things to be sold, but to take care of the lives of both workers and non-workers in society. This includes nurses, CNAs, home health aids, teachers, social service workers, nannies, and more, plus custodians, kitchen workers, and other staff who work in healthcare and social services facilities. We are specifically interested in organizing both recipients and providers of care, as these two groups often appear to be in an antagonist relationship with one another, when really both are being destroyed by the same cuts, policies, and bosses. U&S is happy to re-post the first in a series of longer written articles posted on FJC’s blog, and intended for mass distribution and agitation. Please see http://florencejohnstoncollective.wordpress.com to find out more.
As political campaigns to raise the minimum wage grab headlines, there is a decrease in the federal minimum wage on the horizon that nobody is talking about. The coming reduction in the wage for working class people in the United States, employed and unemployed, will come from a two pronged reduction in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, better known as food stamps. These cuts will affect the 50 million people struggling to feed themselves and their families in the current economic depression. And these nationwide cuts, effecting every recipient, just may provide workers with the broad basis for action against the system that keeps them broke, overworked, and dependent on their boss and the state just to survive.
The state calls food stamps “benefits” and “entitlements”, and tells people they are a privilege, not a right. Some politicians talk about food stamps like they are state sponsored charity. But SNAP benefits are a part of the wage for the lowest strata of the working class. They are the piece of the paycheck necessary to buy food, a piece that the capitalists refuses to pay.
SNAP cuts must be recognized as wage cuts, and fought against by the cooperation of all working class people, no matter whether they receive benefits, and especially by the working class people who work in food stamp and other benefit centers. We need to help build this movement by facilitating these connections, and agitating beyond the reformist lines.
Accordingly we can’t simply defend the program or demand more benefits. The SNAP program itself must be understood as a tool used to discipline the working class. No matter how high they are, these benefits hold a small amount of working class peoples’ wages over their heads to make them dependent, subject them to humiliating privacy violations like drug tests and endless bureaucratic hurdles, and provide a cheap compensation for the loss of real jobs, the ever-diminishing standard of living, and the mass incarceration of tens of millions of Americans. This is why we don’t simply need more food stamps, but the end of the system that makes food stamps necessary to survive
In a world of abundance, billions of people starve, because their work is not needed. Not because they are lazy, or because they made bad decisions, but because the capitalists don’t need them to work. Farmers are paid not to farm by the government in order to control prices, crops rot unsold because of high unemployment, and enough grain to feed the entire world is used to fatten up cows to be eaten by a small portion of the planet’s population, or is sold to countries devastated by unnecessary destruction of farmland at ridiculously high prices. Meanwhile technological advances make the possibility of a very short work day for everyone possible. In short, there’s plenty of food for everyone on the planet, and there is no need for everyone to work anything approaching full time to feed themselves.
In a sane world this would mean everyone has enough to eat and a short work day. But as long as capitalism controls the world, too much food is a problem. It means food prices are too low, it means that people who are put out of work by automation may not be able to buy food, it means that people may find a way to feed themselves without working 50 hours a week at jobs they hate. This final possibility in particular has been a problem for capitalists for hundreds of years. This is how we must understand SNAP–as a capitalist solution to a capitalist problem, both of which will vanish along with capitalism, when we fight to get rid of it.
The Coming Cuts
The “farm bill” (The Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013) is a massive cluster of financial regulations, lax environmental standards, corporate welfare for agricultural businesses, and most famously, SNAP benefits. Taken as a whole, the farm bill will cost almost $100 billion over the next ten years, including provisions that pay farmers not to farm, and environmental regulations that make it easy for big corporations to go on poisoning America’s soil, air, and water. But the only real controversy in Congress is a proposed $4 billion cut to SNAP pushed by House Republicans, which will kick an estimated five million of the America’s poorest workers off the SNAP rolls in the coming years.
It’s hard to say at this point how it will play out. It’s impossible to tell what politicians mean from what they say, since all they do is give campaign speeches. Democrats try to come off as friends of the working class because Republicans have successfully convinced “middle-class” and ruling class voters to vote for them. Barack Obama even repped “the 99%” and used the momentum of Occupy to get reelected, despite being a longtime advocate of the free market and the slashing of benefits and union power for the working class. What we can be sure of is that in addition to the farm bill cuts, SNAP cuts are already coming in November 2013, up to 13.9% of the total program, effecting every recipient. And Congress has little interest in arguing about this.
While the Democrats are posturing as the saviors of American workers, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, better known as the “stimulus package”), is set to expire in November, cutting $20 billion from SNAP across the board, in the first ever cut effecting every single benefit recipient. The ARRA is not to be confused with the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP, better known as “the bailout”) of 2008, effected in haste to prevent a total financial meltdown of global capitalism, which had begun a speedy collapse under its own weight. To avoid the common confusion, it’s helpful to make a distinction between the two.
The bailout (TARP) was pushed through by the outgoing President Bush against the wishes of the free market, to prevent capitalism from collapsing. The stimulus package (ARRA) was passed several months later by the incoming President Obama, who continued most of Bush’s polices. The stimulus package aimed at regenerating the economy in the area of spending, by providing extended unemployment benefits, tax breaks for employers willing to take on more employees, and investments in education, infrastructure and other industries, to protect/provide jobs for workers in those fields. It gave $19.3 billion to the SNAP program, to make up for lost wages as American capitalism took a few years to recover, which really meant to changing its structure to the detriment of working class people–eliminating full-time jobs, cutting benefits, busting unions, and replacing careers with temporary work. This “buffer period” is what Bush and Obama helped pay for.
While the stimulus package and the bailout are two distinct policies, it is impossible to consider them as totally separate. The bailout was a green light to finance capital to continue doing exactly as it had been doing, and allowed businesses the chance to restructure the workforce to a more part-time and easily fired working class. The stimulus package was an attempt to fill the gap left by downward trend of employment, wages, and benefits, and to help the American working class adjust to the new face of work: part-time, low-paying, insecure, and with little or no benefits. It was a small buffer that prevented the working class from having to experience this new reality of work in America all at once.
Five years later, the banks who were bailed out hum along just as before, sitting on the money they were supposed to distribute under TARP (after of course, they paid their executives bonuses), and the working class is beginning to face the reality that 2008 was not simply a temporary crisis, but an actual restructuring of the workforce, and the death of the full-time job, the career, and benefits the majority of us.
It is in this context that the stimulus is set to expire. We will leave it to history to debate its successes and failures. What we know is that SNAP benefits will decrease across the board for all recipients, up to $36/month for households of four, at a time when the federal minimum wage is $7.25. Or to be more precise, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 + the monthly allowance of SNAP benefits each worker receives. That minimum wage is about to go down.
SNAP Benefits In Context
To get the big picture we must understand the role big agriculture and other organs of the US ruling class play in SNAP benefits. The state doesn’t give out benefits because it is nice, no matter how many good Christians hold office. Instead, the federal government, big agricultural companies, and low-paying employers are the real “welfare cheats”, to use a favorite term of American conservatives. Instead of paying decent wages, many American capitalists feed their workers using taxpayer dollars. And these dollars are directed to other capitalists, food sellers and big agricultural businesses, who make a huge profit while selling products that would otherwise go unsold in times of unemployment, underemployment, and shrinking wages. And the US government never misses an opportunity to keep its working class in line, even regulating they way they spend their wage, which this program helps accomplish.
SNAP benefits originated in the late 1930s in response to two factors: growing class struggle amidst the Great Depression, and large surpluses of agricultural product which were not being sold due to advances in farming equipment and high unemployment. During the Great Depression food sat unsold, rotting while people starved or waited in long lines for meager rations, and had begun to question if capitalism was a viable state of affairs. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, hero to Democrats today, destroyed vast stores of livestock and grain at the height of the Depression, in order to raise their prices and stimulate the economy. For FDR the problem with the Depression wasn’t that people were hungry. It was that people weren’t spending. Everyone could have been easily fed with the existing foodstuffs and agricultural land. After all, the depression didn’t stop crops from growing or machines from working. But the capitalist class would not benefit simply from feeding hungry unemployed people. Incidentally, it was during this time that a lot of Americans observed this situation and became socialists and communists.
The original food stamp program was introduced in 1939, a program of blue and yellow stamps to feed workers with the agricultural surpluses capitalists and the state were so desperate to get rid of. The program was abandoned in 1943 when unemployment eased, and surpluses decreased, not because hunger went away. During this time many of the largest unions had revealed how conservative and pro-capitalist they were, many agreeing not to strike because of the war even though many of their members weer anti-war. Workers’ struggle was made more difficult despite many workers disobeying their unions and striking anyway. The pressure that the state had felt was lessened by a variety of factors, especially the cooperation of the unions and the use of public benefits to calm down workers. It was a dark period for the labor movement, and the ruling class had a field day while its representatives in the labor union bureaucracy and its meager benefits helped keep the workers in line. This is an arrangement that continues to this day.
It would be twenty years before the program came back, in 1963. Discontent was growing in American cities, as the resistance to racist American capitalism now known as the Civil Rights movement was kicking into high gear. Kennedy and Johnson needed to calm workers down and prevent possible insurrections in American cities waged by hungry and poor people who were sick of the racist system, the murderous cops, dead end jobs, and watching their children die from curable diseases. Basically, the same conditions we experience today were giving rise to rebellion among people who had decided they no longer had anything to lose but a lot to fight for. These Kennedy and Johnson, heroes to many today, needed a solution to keep workers from asserting themselves, to stop questioning the capitalist basis of society, and to get back to work in peace. And it didn’t hurt that SNAP could do this while also stimulating American agricultural production.
Enacted in 1963, the new SNAP benefits were only valid for American food products, and this was a much needed boost to US agriculture. More importantly these benefits served to discipline the working class who had joined together to fight the system by sometimes crossing race lines, which scared the ruling class most of all. The distribution of food stamps, despite being federally funded, was left up to the states, which have devised all kinds of creative ways to harass benefit recipients ever since and keep them under control. Workers were threatened with the loss of benefits for being convicted of crimes, or losing their jobs for agitating at work. Politicians began to tell white workers that nonwhite workers were leaching off of their tax dollars, at a time when the class was threatening to overcome its racial division. The program has undergone many changes since, most notably a large expansion, but it continues to serve these basic functions.
In 2013 SNAP benefits are at an all time high. They are used as relief after short-term disasters like Hurricane Sandy, long-term disasters like the loss of American productive jobs in cities like Detroit, and the general decrease of full-time, well-paid work for much of the US working class. Military families are placed on food stamps to supplement the pitiful wages that working class Americans receive risking their lives to fight other working class people on behalf of American capitalists. And on a basic level food stamps don’t respond to the material problem of hunger, but instead to the increasing inability of Americans to afford food, and in the words of George Bush after 9/11, to “get about the business of America” and “go shopping”. In order for the US economy to work, working class Americans need to be out there spending.
Seventy-five years after food stamps were introduced, America is suffering through another depression, and the same problems persist. There are too many products, too much food, and not enough people who can afford these items. Workers are stretched so thin that the possibility for eruptions like those rocking Egypt and other places is possible for the first time in many years. In 2009 President Obama recognized this, and signed the stimulus package, extending unemployment and raising food stamps, in a short term solution to the widespread job loss of 2008. Now the stimulus package is set to expire, and things are no better for most workers. It seems like 2008 was not a short term setback for the working class, but the beginning of a new reality for most Americans. And if this isn’t enough, what food stamp provisions will remain after the stimulus package expires are under attack by the Republicans in Congress, who seek to slash the program’s allowance in the 2013 farm bill. Soon enough it will be hard for even the most committed Obamaniac to deny that this is a new reality, not a temporary crisis.
Every worker needs to be paid enough to continue coming into work having eaten reasonably healthy food, slept and cleaned themselves in some kind of shelter, and been able to give birth to and care for a generation of future workers who can do their job when their bodies become too worn out. This is called social reproduction. Its cost is reflected in the total wage the worker receives, no matter if its from the boss, from the state, from the capitalist’s charities, or most often from a combination of the three.
Social reproduction is the reason the worker goes to work. If it was possible to meet our needs without selling ourselves for a wage, nobody would do it. World history for the past 1,000 years is the story of people who were able to live independent of wage labor having their land taken away, their methods of securing food and shelter prohibited, and their traditional ways of life made impossible. Those who weren’t killed off, forced to leave, or pushed onto reservations, became wage laborers, and suddenly they had to go to work for somebody else, and work longer days, without the security that they would continue to be able to feed and house themselves in the long term.
Every working person fantasizes about escaping these conditions. Most movies, music, art, video games, and discussions with friends and family touch on this fantasy, the desire to no longer work for a wage, to escape the world, to live outside the law, to live like people did in another time. Usually this means the fantasy of making it big ourselves and becoming capitalists, but we all know that only a very small percentage can succeed at this.
Driven to work for a wage by the needs of housing, food, pleasure, and security, the worker does far more work than is necessary to earn the wage. If the worker simply sold their labor for a “fair pay” commensurate with their work, there would be no profit, let alone multi-billionaires running around. If the trade was a fair deal, capitalism would cease to exist. Capitalism needs workers to work for longer than necessary, it needs profit. The profit workers create doesn’t just make billionaires able to sit around and do nothing all day, which is certainly true. It is also necessary for businesses to stay alive, to prepare for the future, to expand, to make more profit. It pays for small armies of workers to toil all day doing nothing worthwhile for any society but a capitalist society, like most of the stuff that gets done in the skyscrapers. And it makes for a world where nobody is in charge, not even the leaders; but where workers appear to have one ruler: the wage.
The wage is thus a small compensation for no longer being able to determine the content of our own lives. The wage worker has nothing to sell but their ability to work, and once they agree to work they have to shut up and do whatever is asked of them, whether its unsafe, unethical, degrading, outside their job description, or just pointless. But all the wage worker is interested in is the wage, the only way the worker can survive under capitalism–unless the workers join together and fight. At the present, food stamps are a key part of the wage.
Without food stamps it would be impossible for many workers to make it to work with the energy to do their jobs, never mind the desire to keep working for such low wages. SNAP benefits benefit the capitalist, who needs fed workers, capable of doing their jobs, and feeling like they have something to lose. Companies like Wal Mart, the nation’s largest employer and the model for 21st Century capitalism, rely on food stamps to keep their wages lower than what it costs for the worker to live. This is why there is debate in the ruling class over whether to cut food stamps, not because politicians care about feeding hungry people. And when American capitalism is undergoing a transformation to worse conditions for the workers, as in the early 1970s, and now again the present, public assistance serves as a bridge, transitioning workers to a period of even lower wages, higher unemployment, and a lower standard of living, instead of forcing them into this harsh new reality all at once. Once the benefits are removed, as in the case of the stimulus package, reality sets in. Food stamps and other benefits like unemployment were important in 2009, for helping workers get used to harsher conditions and a lower standard of living. Now that lowered standard of living is here.
Food Stamp Discipline
In times when the working class has very little to lose, and everything to gain by fighting against the capitalist state, SNAP benefits are used to discipline the working class and keep workers and their families in line. Workers are made to wait in line all day, disclose intimate details about themselves, their families, and their living situations, suffer humiliating treatment by police and staff, get photographed and fingerprinted, and chase around paper trails for weeks, just to get the food their bodies require to keep on working, and the nutrition their children need to grow up to be workers. Workers are threatened with the revocation of services if their family members are caught with drugs, if they tell white lies on their applications, or simply do not wish to disclose personal details about their lives to a stranger in exchange for getting money that is theirs anyway. Once on food stamps, workers are kept so poor they can’t risk being fired, but not so poor that they have no other choice but to fight against the state.
Since states are in charge of distribution, state governments like that of Florida and Pennsylvania can pass laws requiring mandatory drug tests, or enforcing a maximum asset limit to qualify for benefits. In the first example, life outside prison increasingly resembles life inside for many Floridians, as working class Americans are subjected to invasive tests while the ruling class parties it up and flaunts drug laws. Drug use by a parent is enough to make the children starve, while three consecutive US presidents have admitted to the same kind of behavior in their “youth”. In Pennsylvanian recipients with over $5,500 in assets, including their cars and televisions, will not be eligible for the program starting in November. Measures like this ensure the working class is as poor as possible, to make it impossible to take any kind of risks, like standing up to their employers, trying to unionize, or even attending a protest, where you can be jailed for days, denied a phone call and lose your job as a result.
And since workers are not being paid enough to survive, food stamps are part of the wage earmarked for food, and they assure the ruling class that workers will feed themselves no matter what else they may need. Food stamps cannot be used to pay rent even if the worker is facing eviction. Food stamps cannot be used for transportation even if the worker needs to get somewhere urgently. Keeping the wage controlled in this way makes sure that workers faced with impossible decision between necessities do not choose something over the food necessary to keep them coming into work. Workers can come to work from homeless shelters, as many in the big cities do, though they usually don’t let their coworkers know this. They cannot however come to work without having eaten for several days, as this becomes biologically impossible. Certain types of food are even contested–soda, candy, prepared food, alcohol are a few examples of items the ruling class deems unnecessary for workers. The result is the reduction of worker’s food consumption to the bare necessities necessary to sustain life, as one feeds a pet. And this is done with a part of the wage that has been withheld.
Additionally, the distribution of benefits assumes specifically racial and gendered dimensions that we can’t overlook. Many conservatives use racist language against benefit recipients, and this is certainly echoed in the white working class (and even among conservative people of color, and not just ruling class cranks like Herman Cain). Responding to racists, liberals are quick to point out that the majority of “welfare” recipients in the US are actually white. This is true, because the majority of people in the US are white. But it hides the fact that food stamp benefits are disproportionately drawn in communities of color, especially among black working class people, and within that demographic, black women especially. This is a reality that it doesn’t do us any favors to ignore, no matter how easily racist idiots can use this information to push their ruling class agenda.
The reality is unemployment and incarceration hit poor communities of color communities hardest. Working class black and brown Americans are sent to the worst schools, harassed by the police and arrested for things white people do unmolested like walking around with drugs in their pocket, and typically left to the lowest positions in the class by the racist structure of workplaces and unions. They are kept as the reserve labor force, called on when capitalism needs all hands on deck, or are simply disposable labor with no use to capitalism at all. The prison system arose as a warehouse for this reserve labor population, ensuring a flow of dirt cheap labor with no chance of social mobility, and acting as a storage place for poor people when this labor isn’t needed. The corollary to the prison system, which targets a majority of men of color, is the food stamp system, which helps keep their families going on the outside, in order to fill the gaps when capitalism needs them to work.
Working class women find themselves in an impossible situation. If it was ever possible for a single working class paycheck to support a family in the US, that day is over. Throughout the 20th Century and before, women were forced to do work considered “private”, such as taking care of the home and children. This work is of course necessary to capitalism, but it is considered private so that it can remain unwaged. In the middle of the century the single paycheck no longer paid for someone to stay home, and women were forced into the workforce, where they were used to drive down wages, and constituted a subclass of workers. Meanwhile, they were still expected to do their work at home, which had once been a full-time occupation for many. This “women’s work” was now to be done after one or two jobs. Raising children came to mean hiring a babysitter or a day-care, also forced to low wages because of the low-wage of the women themselves. Sexism among the working class prevented men and women from finding common cause and struggling against these conditions together, though there were of course inspiring exceptions.
Since the 1970s capitalism in the US has needed fewer and fewer workers. But the wages aren’t any better, and have in fact grown much worse. Women stuck in “women’s work” are forced to do more with less, as along with men they are forced to often break the law to make ends meet, or are completely demoralized by their inability to make a wage and resort to addiction and crime. Since the state can’t lock up entire families in their labor warehouses, women most often remain on the outside, sustained on benefits the way men on the inside are sustained by food and shelter.
The racial dimensions this assumes are consistent with the racist division of labor in the United States, but extends to the general working class as well. This is the story of many white families, not just families of color. And as the middle class in communities of color grows, and figures like Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama prominently represent the ruling class, it becomes impossible to understand these inequalities in simply racial terms, and their foundation in class inequality becomes irrefutable. Materially speaking, the black working class has more in common with the white working class than with black ruling class politicians like Al Sharpton and Condoleeza Rice, but white racism makes this commonality hard to find, and helps opportunistic members of the black ruling class convince working people to support their pro-capitalist politics.
Finally, people of color are most likely to work for the large state agencies that dispense programs like SNAP. These jobs are considered steady and reliable by many working class people, but they are very emotionally draining. Even the most caring and compassionate worker in state agencies is quickly overwhelmed by the inhuman conditions of these programs, their endless bureaucracy, their humiliating conditions for benefit recipients, and how pitiful the benefits themselves are. The most well-meaning person who wants to “be the change they want to see in the world” soon realizes in these jobs that they are simply representatives of a broken system, and are unable to help anyone or make any real changes as long as the system is intact. These workers often develop contempt for the people they are supposed to take care of, who can be abusive and combative, treating the low-level representatives of the state to the anger and hatred they have for the state itself.
Solidarity between these workers and the working class people they help each day must be found, to fight these conditions together. This is not to come in the form of mutual support, or mutual aid, but the recognition of a common class position.
The ruling class needs to keep workers in line. But why isn’t all this simply done with higher wages? Some people think that American workers don’t fight back because they have been bribed with high wages, and historically speaking, there may be a grain or two of truth to this. But in the present, with the decline of unions, the rise of automation in once-skilled fields, and the migration of many American corporations to countries without environmental and labor regulations, American capitalists have no need to offer high wages to most of the working class, except for a small segment of managers, administrators, and police who act against the class and generally consider themselves superior, or “middle class”. This is a small percentage of American workers that shrinks every day.
Most workers in the U.S. are threatened by homelessness and starvation, if not police and prison terms, and this is what makes them work. Most workers in this country are simply disposable, especially in times of high unemployment and decreasing benefits to support the jobless–key strategies behind the current cuts. And the bosses make sure this is is known. Workers don’t regularly go on strike out of a fear of losing the only means to keep them alive, or at least off the streets and out of prison, not because they don’t understand what’s wrong with the system. And from a capitalist perspective, high rate of unemployment helps keep wages down, and provides a large force of unemployed workers willing to work for less than the minimum wage, do dangerous jobs, cross picket lines, and so forth. This is why in this depression many companies post record profits, and profitable companies continue layoffs.
There was a time in America where capitalists were forced to grant wage increases and better working conditions by massive strikes, sometimes embroiling entire cities, and coordinating workers in different industries. Nowadays the unions that are left work with the bosses to make sure strikes don’t happen, or don’t get out of control, and most workers are just happy to have a job. Any job.
Once a working class person gets a job, the biggest fear becomes losing it. This fear is increased for the millions of (both documented and undocumented) immigrants whose ability to stay in the US is determined almost entirely by their work. Employment is a precondition for receiving food stamps for many workers, and failure to provide proof of employment can disqualify someone from the program. And jobs have never been easier to lose. Workers can be fired for organizing, for talking back, or for many other reasons once common in American workplaces, and this creates a climate of fear in which nobody dares stand up for themselves. And the “individualism” many Americans cherish, itself a product of destroyed communities, smaller workplaces, and long work weeks, is an obstacle to real organizing, as the bravest workers often can’t comprehend joining other workers in struggle against the bosses and decide instead to act alone or just quit. Acting alone, these bold workers always lose.
While we fight SNAP cuts we must recognize that SNAP benefits are no friend to working class Americans. They help discipline the class, keep it dependent, keep it subservient and scared. To simply argue for more benefits is the argue for the continuation of this situation. We must fight these cuts while recognizing the programs for what they are, with no illusions about what the future holds for working class Americans if the system remains intact, no matter what reforms we can achieve.
Where Do We Stand?
Given the history and function of SNAP benefits, it may be confusing that there’s so much debate about SNAP and other programs in US politics. And the relations between the different strategies behind SNAP outlined above may not make perfect sense. For example, how can a program like SNAP that is so beneficial to US agriculture be cut by the capitalist class that runs the country? And why is a program that keeps people from fighting back being cut at a time when rebellions are a serious threat in US cities? There are two factors at work behind this confusion: one is the general disagreement among the ruling class, which is certainly not a single will acting without opposition, and includes different interests and different ideas about how the working class should be controlled. The second is the limits of what is possible within capitalism; capitalism requires widespread poverty in order to function, and imposes a diminishing standard of living for workers, no matter what politicians want to do–just ask the “socialist” government of Greece!
Every smart worker knows that Republicans and Democrats are two heads of the same beast, the US ruling class. And the ruling class sometimes has disagreements. For example, individual capitalist companies do not have to worry about the crime epidemic that layoffs cause in a neighborhood, as long as the crime doesn’t impact their business, while property owners worry about their property values in areas susceptible to crime. Likewise many capitalists stand to benefit from undocumented immigrants working for less than the minimum wage and not demanding any job protections, while many conservative politicians rely on anti-immigrant populism in order to get votes from people who are afraid of losing their jobs (or who are downright racist). This second example represents a division within the current Republican party itself, as well as within the ruling class in general. And in the case of the Farm Bill, the politicians aligned with agricultural companies have to compete with politicians aligned with other companies, vying for tax money and influence in the government.
This explains the debate among the ruling class over food stamps and the minimum wage. Democrats advocate higher minimum wages and more food stamp benefits because they believe that a slightly better off working class will make it easier for capitalism to continue exploiting it; less disturbances, better educated workers, more small capitalists running around, and so forth. Republicans push for a vision of the country in which large disposable segments of the working class are deprived the famous “safety net”, state functions are turned over to the free market, and the poor are allowed to starve, rot in jail, and work in conditions increasingly resembling slavery–kept in line by violent security forces rather than by material comfort and a personal investment in keeping the system going.
No matter the debate in Washington, we must not forget that its simply two sides of the ruling class, two competing visions for how the US working class can be exploited most profitably for the capitalists. These are not options that we as workers should have to choose between. We can’t simply rally behind whatever politician claims to be representing us, or whatever non-profit organization seeks to ease the burden. When we defend working class people against benefit cuts, low wages, and increased discipline, we can’t simply fall back on these ruling class lines. Democrats will use guilt to try to force us to make demands like “jobs for everyone”, “benefits for people willing to work”, “defend the middle class” and other conservative positions that reinforce the system which exploits working class people, makes them dependent not only on a wage, and allows state benefits to discipline them and keep them down.
Against this we need to stand up and say that we are against not only the cuts to SNAP and other programs, but the low wages that they supplement. We are against the use of benefits to discipline the working class and keep them in line, and also against the very system that makes SNAP benefits necessary. So-called liberals will tell you there is no option besides getting behind the politicians and the big money campaigns of the ruling class non-profits. This is a lie, there is another path–but we have to make it ourselves.
What To Do?
We need an effective organization of SNAP recipients, working class people who are not currently SNAP recipients (but may be soon!), and the working class people who provide these benefits. This cannot be done with a ballot, a letter to Congress, or a calm protest where politicians lecture the crowd about voting for them. This can only be done by creating organizations of the working class that don’t take no for an answer, which are capable of making demands and backing them up. Think Occupy, but run by workers in their workplaces, benefit recipients in their social service centers, and students in their schools.
The necessary first step toward this is developing contacts among food stamp center workers, benefit recipients, and militant workers across all strata of the class. It is the position of this piece that the coming food stamp cuts provide a possible opening for the forging of these kinds of connections. There is no doubt the reformists will be out in full force, and its a matter of whether we will be too. This means flying, meeting workers in diverse fields, and crafting analysis that understands the situation as a common one instead of a thousand unrelated problems.
This also means we need to call out working class people who trash SNAP recipients, and the racist attitudes they often possess. SNAP has always been used to pit poor people against each other using racist myths about “welfare queens”, exaggerated figures about “food stamp fraud” and use on drugs and alcohol (as if how you spend part of your wage is anyone’s business!), and generally helping self-proclaimed “middle class” Americans feel superior to those forced to receive benefits despite their often common situation. Workers need to turn their hate away from each other and onto the class that makes it necessary to beg the state for SNAP benefits in order to survive. And radical workers must be comfortable calling out this kind of behavior and revealing it to be a tool of the ruling class. Until this day comes we will always be defeated.
The US working class has a long history of racism, sexism, and homo/transphobia, especially in the trade unions. This part of the reason for unions’ defeat, and the broader defeat of the working class, because a divided working class cannot fight a united ruling class that can line up behind asian cops, gay bosses, latino lawyers, and a black president (and soon, a woman). Ignorance is the biggest obstacle to class action and must be confronted in the working class. This can only be done by struggling together against the ruling class. It is only when workers of different backgrounds struggle together that their prejudices begin to erode and they discover their common ground beneath the differences which capitalist society exaggerates to keep them separate. This is painful work burdened by our country’s toxic history, but we must undertake it if we are to succeed, while supporting those among us who are most vulnerable to these prejudices.
We need an organization capable of taking over our workplaces, our benefits centers, our streets. We need to fight for the end of benefit cuts, for higher wages, for a shorter work day, and never stop until we’ve smashed the system that makes these things impossible.
The Florence Johnston Collective