Gulag Without A Gate
Gulag Without A Gate
By Mark Cantrell
Copyright (C) April 2001
THEY have no barracks, no barbed wire, and no armed guards, but this
country's gulags exist in every town and city.
Britain's gulag archipelago is as vast as it is strange; this huge open
prison has millions of inmates all guilty of economic and political
crimes. In short, they are guilty of being poor and out of work.
The unemployed are only a step above asylum seekers in the ranks of the
enemies within. Yet they too are refugees seeking a safe haven. Like
those bombed out of Kosovo, or forced to flee persecution abroad, the
unemployed turn to the British state for help. Like those other
refugees, they find only persecution and the wagging finger of
Some might find it strange to liken the unemployed to asylum seekers.
Of course, the plight of the former is no way as severe as the latter,
yet the consequences of unemployment and poverty are often just as
damaging as the conditions experienced by those fleeing war and
persecution in their homelands.
Take Longbridge as an example. Quite rightly, the threatened closure
was described as a bomb going off in the Midlands. The consequences of
that closure, and the knock on effects, would have had the impact of a
neutron bomb. The Midlands would be devastated, but the buildings left
standing. Empty and forlorn, but still there as a legacy of a once
Communities and lives would have been torn apart, just as those of the
Kosovons and Kurds and ordinary Iraqis have been torn apart by bombs
and bullets and sanctions.
Had those 50,000 jobs vanished, these refugees of the Midlands crisis
would have sought succour and support from the state -- from the
benefits system. Like asylum seekers they would have found the pointing
finger of accusation and the wagging tongues of the moral
The gulag would claim them.
Once upon a time, the benefits system was part of the welfare state. It
provided a bottom line, a safety net for those who fell on hard times.
It provided help for those to find work who needed it.
Successive waves of politicians, desperate to generate political
capital among the ranks of mythic Middle England, have transformed the
welfare state -- in particular the benefits system -- into a coercive
arm of the state.
Today it augments the police and criminal justice system. Indeed, it is
a full-blown policing operation, with considerable powers of control
over the inmates who must regularly report to the Job Centre for
The benefits system has been transformed into a totalitarian system
that has the power to monitor every aspect of its inmate's lives. It
punitive sanctions break the concepts of natural justice that demands
innocence until guilt is proven; something that the criminal justice
system still maintains even if only in lip service. It also breaches
human rights as enshrined in the UN Declaration.
Poverty has long been an institution; and like any institution it is
staffed to maintain its existence, and commanded by the wealthy and the
powerful. To be poor is not an innate trait of an individual, it is a
condition into which someone is thrown, like a mediaeval dungeon.
Poverty is something that is done to you by somebody else.
And the Gulag strives to keep you there.
In our society, a human being has no right to a belly full of food; no
right to shelter from the elements; no right to warmth; no right to
clothes or shoes or any of the necessities of living. Indeed, contrary
to the rhetoric that says otherwise, in our society no human being has
the right to be human. Humanity is an exclusive club and it costs to
For the rest of us, we face the daily reality of life in the cattle
pens we call nation states. While capital is deregulated and flits
around the globe at will, we the people that sustain capital, are kept
in 'camps', monitored, scrutinised, ever-increasingly regulated. Safe
in our cattle-pens we are nurtured and groomed as producers or
consumers, or just condemned to the gulag.
A few are allowed out of their pens, but only to join other pens, or as
the brief consumerist retreat we call the holiday. Nowhere on Earth are
we free to be human beings.
Life in the gulag is in the deepest mire of control and observation;
neither producer nor quite a full-blown consumer. This is the life of
enforced uselessness, a waiting room for the lucky few who seek
re-assignment elsewhere in the great capitalist machine. For still
others, it remains the place where their lives are left to rot.
Notions of the gulag bring to mind images of the Soviet camp system,
epitomised in such stories from Solzhenitsin in the Gulag Archipelago
or One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch. This was a vast prison
system where political prisoners were consigned -- to be worked to
In calling the dole a gulag, it is not to make a direct comparison, but
rather a metaphor; one which has been used to describe the US penal
Gulags are, in popular expression, a political prison institution, and
so they largely are. But even the pinnacle of the gulag system, the old
Soviet gulags, their role was not consigned purely to the political;
they maintained an inherent economic function.
Incarcerating political opponents of the Soviet system might have been
the original function of the Gulag. It quickly became more; it swept up
millions into a huge machine designed to produce cheap labour for
Stalin's mighty projects of building an empire to stand up to the
So politics became the cover, the excuse for the purges that swept up
millions. For instance, when the machine required engineers, thousands
of engineers were sucked into the system on the pretext of political
Politics and economics, entwined in the barbed-wire of human misery,
for the greatness of the state.
In producing the living metaphor of unemployment as a gulag there is
likewise an economic function to the enforced misery of
Long ago, Marx commented that the maintenance of a large group of
inactive workers was but a 'reserve army of labour'. It could be called
upon at need, and otherwise functioned to keep wage demands at lowered
There is an aspect of this to the modern gulag; economic orthodoxy has
stated that the battle to keep inflation low is of pre-eminent
importance to a healthy economy. That orthodoxy since Thatcher's day
has seen high unemployment as a means to achieving this. The flip side
was the need for tighter state control of these dispossessed masses --
the 'dead wood' hacked off the economic tree.
Despite rhetoric in modern days of the aspiration of full employment,
maintaining low inflation is seen as an essential component in the
struggle to stabilise the economy. And this means that the unemployed
must still get it in the neck -- through cuts in benefits and a host of
'jankers' type programmes to keep them occupied.
A costly system for sure. Bureaucracy is a resource sponge, ever
seeking to grow, and all command and control systems are bureaucratic;
forever struggling to grow and engorge themselves. As with the gulag
system, the inmates become the fodder for the machine, its reason to
be, and its means of securing its continued existence.
So many strands intertwine in the fabric of Britain's gulag -- many
that are contradictory -- all born of the competing needs of the
machine, its masters, and their day to day political
So typically, the economic and the political are wrapped around each
other like the coils of barbed wire along the perimeter of a physical
The state needs its inmates of the gulag for political capital, yet
that state also demands ever-lowered costs and so snips constantly at
the machinery of the gulag. So too does it need to monitor and control
the inmates, driving them to seek the lowest common denominator of the
world of work.
Still more, there is another function of the gulag of unemployment;
again an economic one. As in Marx's day, the maintenance of a reserve
army of labour helps to place a cap on the demands of wage earners for
That reserve army can also be farmed out through schemes, and a
plethora of temping agencies into short term work. A handy, short-term
resources for local employers, or even 'free labour' that is subsidised
by the state by so called 'training' or 'work experience'
Despite the fudge of the minimum wage, many people still face a daily
grind of work that cannot sustain them with the adequate means to live.
So here too, despite existing in the world of work, they are still tied
to the gulag -- subsidised by the state so that employers may possess
cheaper labour. And, of course, the gulag may fully claim these people
at any time.
Not that the gulag has physical gates. It is but a metaphor, but for
millions of people throughout this country, they are incarcerated all
For these inmates, their only crimes are to be poor and surplus to
requirements: the unwanted components of a machine that cannot sustain
each and every human's needs nor do so in harmony with our natural
It's a machine that is even more redundant that those souls condemned
to the Gulag Without Gates.
Bradford, 24 April 2001
Copyright (C) April 2001. All Rights Reserved.