The debate about labour market activation, workfare or 'welfare-to-work' has hitherto remained within parameters set by a hegemonic liberal discourse. The aphorism 'work is the best form of welfare' is premised on the assumption that state welfare is a suboptimal means of providing subsistence and that paid employment is the optimal form of work. This may be tempered by an acceptance that state welfare can be a proper means by which to recognise legitimate social interdependency and that there are certain forms of unpaid work, such as caring, that are necessary and deserve at least some measure of respect. To the extent that concessions are made, they are concessions nonetheless: the underlying ideological premise remains intact. This paper will synthesise arguments developed elsewhere in order to suggest an unashamedly socialist alternative through which to frame a counter-hegemonic discourse. • It will endorse Marx's argument that 'work' should be understood as that form of human activity that defines our species-being; our metabolism with Nature. For Marx, however, wage labour was an exploitative and alienating form of work. • It is possible not only to embrace the idea (enshrined, inter alia, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) that we have a right to work, but that that right has its foundation in human beings' need to work. Work is necessary to our wellbeing. Work, however, is far more than wage labour. The welfare state has the capacity to protect people from the adverse consequences of wage labour. It could also now be harnessed to enable them to fulfil their need for work without as much as within the labour market. • The prevailing ethic in social policy - globally as well as within the established welfare states - is essentially hedonic. It assumes the human individual is motivated by the personal desire to maximise pleasure and minimise pain and that people can be governed in this light. It is possible nevertheless to recapture and inflect an alternative ethic envisioned by classical philosophers. A eudaimonic ethic assumes that to accomplish a good life the human individual requires that deeper kind of fulfilment which stems from mutual engagement with, and shared concern for, other people. This implies not a 'work-first' or even a 'human capital' approach, but a 'life-first' approach that puts human welfare before labour market engagement
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