Is the End of Debtfare Forced Labour?

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Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 29/09/2020 - 5:26am in

In his chapter ‘The Violence of the Debtfare State’ in Vickie Cooper and David Whyte, eds., The Violence of Austerity (London: Pluto Press 2017), David Ellis uses the term ‘debtfare’ to describe the dismantling of state welfare provision and its replacement by debt and credit. And I’m starting to wonder how far this can go before something like debt slavery arises. The Romans abolished debt slavery, but the punishment for debt was addictio, forced labour. People are being forced into mountains of debt through poverty created by austerity and the removal of living wages and proper unemployment and disability benefits. Students are also mired in it through tuition fees which now may amount to tens of thousands of pounds.

I am therefore left wondering at what point the various banks and other organisations offering credit will stop it and start demanding their money back or some other form of repayment. Clearly if people remain in debt, they can’t repay the money. The alternatives seem to be either that the banks keep on giving them credit in the hope that they’ll be able to repay something, or else write it off as a loss. But if the number of people in irrecoverable debt hits millions, what happens? If the levels of indebtedness actually starts to harm the banks and the other organisations, will they turn to the state to demand some kind of forced labour in order to make good their profits?

I’ve already pointed out the similarity of the workfare schemes to the forced labour systems of Stalin’s Russia. Stalin used slave labour from the gulags to industrialise the Soviet Union. Business managers would give the KGB lists of the kind of workers their enterprise needed, and the KGB would then have those with the appropriate skills and qualifications accused of anti-Soviet crimes and arrested. The workfare scheme now used to punish the unemployed doesn’t teach anybody any new skills, nor does it allow them to find employment. Indeed the stats a while ago showed that people on workfare were less likely to get a job than if they were left to their own initiative. But workfare does supply cheap, state-subsidised labour to the scheme’s backers and the parties’ business donors, like the supermarkets.

So if the number of people in grievous, irrecoverable debt, will the government simply write them off and let them starve to death, as so many disabled people have done already thanks to false assessments under the Work Capability Tests? Or will they decide they can still make some money for business by pressing them into compulsory labour in order to work their way out of it, as in the Roman system?

I’m not saying this will happen or even that it’s likely. But I do wonder if it’s a possibility.