Saturday, April 06, 2013
Vilifying welfare posted by Richard Seymour
The Right's attempt to construct a moral panic about welfare from the Philpott case has been just a little bit too clumsily and visibly executed to be totally effective. Nevertheless, the manner in which a certain political language is being forged here is instructive.
Set aside the falsifications and 'colour' journalism. These are the elements of the story. Mick Philpott is a man with a history of domestic violence, terrorising and manipulating spouses and progeny. He is a habitually violent individual, a bampot who - when he embarked on a plot that would result in six of his children dying - was on bail for having beaten a man for pulling out in front of him in his car. His accomplices were his wife, Mairead, who left a previous abusive relationship before meeting Philpott, and seems to have been to all purposes a domestic slave; and a mate, Paul Mosley, who - for all the attempts to paint him in the shades of lucifer - appears to be a weak-minded sidekick. Together, they embarked on a plot to set fire to the house with six of Philpott's children in it - not to kill them, but to 'rescue' them, claim the credit, frame his recently departed ex, and win custody. This resulted in the six children being burned to death.
The judge, in the traditional homily, suggested that the actions of this group are 'incomprehensible' to 'right-thinking people' - the conventional mystification, which draws a wholesome screen between the functioning of normal society, and the shockingly aberrant. Actually, the plot itself may be extreme, but the context of domestic servitude, patriarchy, violence, petty criminality, and so on, isn't all that incomprehensible. The newspapers, for their part, have been absorbed by the hedonistic 'lifestyle' of Philpott and his associates since he was first turned into a comical hate figure for requesting a larger council house to accommodate his eleven children back in 2006. What have they dug up? Lots of sex, including 'dogging' and threesomes, drugs, and numerous children. Much of it made up, some of it exaggerated. Oh, and benefits. No one seems to know exactly what benefits the very large Philpott family claimed, but it's assumed that with working tax credits for his two female partners, child benefits and housing benefit, the maximum total sum could have been something like £54,000 per year - by far the larger component coming from tax credits (which is a 'good' benefit which working people get, as opposed to one of the 'bad' benefits that layabouts get). With a family of eleven children and three adults, that would have amounted to less than £4,000 each which seems scandalously low to me.
So far, so familiar. Osborne and the Daily Mail stand accused of drawing a crude connotative connection between the welfare state and the 'lifestyle' thus described. The opportunism is jarring: there is no obvious link between the payment of welfare and the conduct of these people. They are using dead children, or the affect invested in them, as battering rams to topple the remaining pillars of the welfarist consensus. There are real 'issues' here if one wants them: domestic violence and servitude, low wages, the lack of adequate provision for children, etc. But these are only of interest as symptoms of a 'lifestyle', a pathology of the welfare state.
This is the reflex critique, anyway. The problem is, it doesn't supply us with the means to counter the rightist ideological assault on welfare; powerful though it is, it only leaves us with an alternative moralism, and that is a terrain that is heavily pre-structured in favour of the Right. The other problem is that in focusing on the manipulative discursive strategies of the Right, it neglects the reasons why these discourses resonate, with the result that either one overstates the power of these discourses and their presumed authors, or one must borrow an ideological stop-gap from the stock media representations - e.g., they resonate because of a disreputable minority who abuse the system, blah blah blah.
If we stand outside the force-field of our culture for a moment, aloof from its dominant assumptions, some things about it suddenly become very obvious. We are used to the fact that when we talk about welfare, we talk about desert rather than rights; this is so familiar that it hardly makes an impression any more. It is in fact far more of an oddity if someone actually defends the idea that welfare is a right, not a reward for good behaviour. This is the point of reintroducing Victorian ideologies about the 'deserving' vs the 'undeserving' poor - it is a deliberate shift away from a universalistic, rights-based language of welfare of the sort which was commonplace in the post-war era.
In fact, if you look at the way in which the welfare state has developed, it is very clear that it is not universal, and that it is not concretely experienced as a right in many cases. The most obvious example is the benefits systems itself. Recipients of Jobseeker's Allowance know very well they are not the bearers of rights, but intruders who should be chased out of the Jobcentre Plus as rapidly as the bureaucratic machinery will allow: "Why are you here, and how can we encourage you to fuck off as rapidly as possible?" This is conveyed to them in every way, from the interrogative 'appointments' to the demand for proof of seeking work, to the referrals to useless training sessions, and so on. Similar pressures have been applied to the recipients of Disability Living Allowance. Means-testing has eroded universality in other benefits, with the presumably intended effect of deterring many claims. There is no need to say how and why the benefits system came to function as if it were a vast machine that would work perfectly well if it weren't for all the claimants - it's sufficient to note that it is not experienced as a right, but as an alm to be begged for, a petty resource to be struggled for, or lied for if need be.
However, it goes well beyond this. In every public service there have long been geographical and social maps of privilege and exclusion, frontlines of competitive struggle over resources. Take schools. Even before all the mania of league tables and 'naming and shaming' 'failing schools', there were these hierarchies and little informal ivy leagues - middle class parents already knew how to adjust their future home buying habits according to catchment area, to get a decent C of E school for example. The so-called 'postcode lottery' in the NHS is much the same, particularly when it is governed by internal markets - to say nothing of how things will be now that the effective dismantling of the NHS has begun. Local council provision has always been structured along class lines and segregated by race, tendencies accentuated by the centralised suppression of local budgets and the quango-isation of local administration in the neoliberal era. Moreover, with ever larger areas of provision rationed by pricing (rather than the traditional method of queueing), there is no question of 'rights' in those areas.
Labour's role in this is quite important, since it is supposed to be the main author and defender of the welfare state, and its constituents are its major beneficiaries and supporters. What were at first retreats from a social democratic consensus have long since become thorough evacuations. New Labour, for example, did not merely grudgingly accept the involvement of private capital in the public sector; it avidly sought to build capital, and market-like structures, and pricing for services, into the fabric of the public sector. It did not simply acquiesce in a reactionary narrative about scrounging welfare queens. It started by cutting benefits for single mothers not to woo the Murdoch press, but as part of a consistent outlook that saw the benefit as one that fostered dependency. As I recall, Blair won plaudits from the Observer for his 'feminist' stance in trying to 'empower' women by coercing them to join the labour market. It was actually a New Labour government that first embraced the idea of 'workfare' in the UK, on the assumption that, far from accessing their rights, claimants of welfare were becoming dependent on freebies that they should be forced to earn.
And it is in the texture of this experience, in the spaces evacuated and reconfigured by neoliberal praxis, that the claims of the Right have achieved some resonance among people who are not in other respects right-wing. All right-wing axe-grinding to one side, there is a very real seam of experience of state provision as a competitive struggle for resources won from an oppressive, intrusive and often serially incompetent and inhuman agencies.
In that context, it may be correct to speak of welfare rights, it may indeed be essential to do so, but it just does not resonate with people's experiences of the whole system. There is very little, even in the best of the welfare state, that has led people to expect anything other than a vicious, competitive struggle for scarce resources and services in which most people lose, most of the time. This must of necessity generate tremendous social resentment: every little bit that anyone else gets is suspect; it has to be interrogated, the beneficiary's worthiness tested. If there's the slightest suspicion of a character flaw, never mind a huge 'dodgy-as-fuck' neon sign that hovers over a vicious wife-beater who inadvertently burns his children to death, the most convenient assumption is that something went wrong with the system - there's a scam somewhere, or political correctness has gone mad, etc. Eventually, there is a point at which a number of people - again I'm speaking of a section of people who are not natural Tories - start to ask whether the business of paying taxes into a costly, inefficient, oppressive system is even worth it, and whether it wouldn't just be more sensible to 'treat people as adults' (meaning, as rational consumers) and let them buy whatever healthcare, pension or 'safety net' provision they choose.
It may seem odd to place so much emphasis on neoliberal subject-formation in an era when neoliberal ideology is in serious crisis. It may seem over-stated when there are millions of people who defiantly refuse to think like this. But this is the point: 1) there is a crisis, but what is being offered as a remedy is its deepening and radicalisation, and this is most popular where it activates a language of social resentment; 2) the catalyst for the acceptance of this language is the practical experiences of millions which, paradoxically, are in many respects the product of earlier waves of neoliberalism, as well as the traditional failings of state bureaucracies; and 3) if we are to defend the welfare state in this context, we cannot simply adopt a defensive strategy (which is another problem with moralism) - to conserve it, one would have to propose a sweeping reform of the whole ensemble of institutions we call the 'welfare state', and really seek to create a system of universal, free and equal provision of services and benefits as a matter of right.