Sunday, January 26, 2014

Benefits Street: the neoliberalism in our souls?

"In every real and living economy every actor is always an entrepreneur."  - Ludwig von Mises.

What happens when 'entrepreneurs' fail?  What happens when, for one reason or another, they consistently fail to deploy their 'capital' in such a way as to develop reliable income streams?  The first thing they do is withdraw from 'the market'.  They depend on benefits.  And then?  I'll come back to that.

At the beginning of the first episode of the first series of 'Benefits Street', a local informant guides a camera man down a fairly average looking working class street in Birmingham, points at house fronts, and identifies each as "unemployed, unemployed... unemployed... unemployed...".  The whole street is essentially a dumping ground for the local reserve army of labour: something I would imagine the local council understands and plans for.  The programme is not called 'Unemployment Street'; that is still, to a large extent, understood as a social problem.  It is called 'Benefits Street'; that is increasingly understood as a lifestyle, and an ethos.  

There's a melancholic sense of decline associated with this.  The discourse around the programme is that this street once epitomised the 'respectable working class', as opposed to the feckless 'underclass' that supposedly persists today.  Where once, we are told, proud working class families were industrious and obsessively clean, making as much as possible with precious little, and only relied upon benefits as a temporary expedient, today it has become a 'way of life'.  Sleeping on the sofa, smoking fags, sitting on the front doorstep, drinking beer in the street, shouting at immigrants, shouting at spouses, shouting at the kids - a whole 'way of life'.  This is what the programme seeks to capture with anthropological interest.

Of course, this is partially a melancholia associated with the decline of empire, the loss of global omnipotence associated with it, and the changing composition of the metropole in the aftermath.  The narrator of 'Benefits Street' remarks on the many 'nationalities' on the street, over shots of diverse skin tones and sartorial tendencies.  This is clearly a euphemistic way of saying that the place is multiracial, and particularly that it has a high proportion of recent migrants.  Subsequent events depict serious rivalries between 'locals' and 'newcomers'.  It doesn't matter what 'side' you take here, as the connotations are what matter.  Merely establishing that immigration is part of the terrain, the fabric of Britain's 'decline', its development of a hopeless class of cradle to grave losers, is sufficient.  That sets the scene.  The connection is already half-established in people's minds anyway; the resentment already simmering.  Cameron's recent promise to remove benefits from people who don't speak English was very well-timed and tapped into the same stream of resentment.

Not everything goes the way of the Right in this programme.  'Reality television' is not reality, of course, but it has to aspire to some degree of realism if it is to be convincing: unvarnished characters, mundane dialogue, real accents, blunt native wisdom, drama emerging from the humdrum and the everyday - this is all in the conventions.  Of course, the programme is dishonest: it is entertainment masquerading as a documentary.  Of course, the characters are lied about by omission or other means.  Even so, it is not possible to depict them as yacht-owning, mansion-dwelling con merchants.  The people on 'Benefits Street' are poor.  The abundance of coping mechanisms - booze, fags, anti-depressants, other drugs - tell you that many of them are miserable.  The couple accused of welfare fraud are obviously struggling to make ends meet means.  Those reactionary myths, of a gold-plated welfare royalty laughing all the way to the bank, fall at the first hurdle of even televisual 'reality'.  Still, as I will suggest, this is not incompatible with the neoliberal mantra.

Equally, the programme is not unsympathetic to its subjects.  Indeed, it takes particular care to develop its characters such that, even if it isn't completely honest about them, it is not thoroughly dehumanising either.  This fact has been cited in its defence by reactionaries, who profess to have found themselves warming to certain characters.  But there is nothing original or surprising about this.  The dominant currency of the neoliberal Right is the faux sympathetic line: 'we must help these people to help themselves'.  The ultimate, absurd conclusion of this is Iain Duncan Smith's claim, in a speech referencing 'Benefits Street', that his welfare cuts place him in the abolitionist tradition.  The brutal flip side of this 'compassionate' bullying, of course, is the demand for eugenic eradication of the underclass: bring in breeding licenses, Twitter sages suggested, and make them prove themselves fit citizens before they start littering the place with more spawn.  This does not necessarily have anything to do with biogenetic ideology, although the resurgence of this in recent years is instructive; it's sufficient for people to believe that 'lazy, feckless spongers' will raise uneducated kids with no morals, thus passing on their 'way of life' from one generation to the next,

So, this brings me back to the question of what comes after people withdraw from 'the market' and depend instead on benefits.  The neoliberal concept of 'the market' is quite unlike that in classical liberalism.  It is not the self-regulating mechanism that tends toward equilibrium, as long as the state does not distort pricing signals.  It is an educative mechanism; it teaches you how to govern yourself.  We know that neoliberals consider 'the market' to be an extraordinarily efficient, spontaneous order, and that its supposed efficiency has to do with its ability to automatically piece together the millions and millions of dispersed fragments of knowledge about wants and desires, and communicate them in simple pricing mechanisms, that enables the best allocation of resources.  There is a certain pseudo-democratic rhetoric of popular choice in this - never mind trying to tell people what they should want, with your paternalistic institutions and laws; let smart businessmen give them what they really want.  But actually, more important is the process of learning.  It is through developing plans of action, making choices, allocating resources, and so on, that 'entrepreneurs' - and remember, there is no actor who is not an 'entrepreneur' - learn to behave rationally.  Because the market punishes irrationality.  'The market' is a school of self-government, and it is only by immersing actors constantly in market situations, as widely as possible, that they will become effective at governing themselves.  In this sense, 'the market' constructs its own subject.

That is the theory, at any rate.  According to this view, then, if you take people out of 'the market', they lose contact with the educative process.  They lose the sense of 'entrepreneurship', of scenting an opportunity, of putting their resources, their information, their skills to work, in order to snatch a prize before someone else does.  They lose the physical and mental capital, the fitness, the skills, the aptitude, for 'enterprise'.  This is 'welfare dependency'.  This is what Iain Duncan Smith characterised as a state of 'slavery'; ironically, and entirely logically from the neoliberal purview, the cure to this 'slavery' is to compel people to work for free.  This is not simply about saving money, and it is not at all about the 'free market'.  'The market' may be the ultimate remedy, but neoliberals know that a strong state is required to ensure the dominance of 'the market'.  (You could consider the recent arrests for drug offences on James Turley street a dramatic illustration of that principle.)  It is to a significant degree about subject formation.  Or, in a different idiom, the production of souls.

In this vein, the ultimate follow-up series to 'Benefits Street', which I'm not entirely convinced we won't see, would be 'Make-Over Street', in which a team of behavioural economists, therapists, career and financial advisors, make-up artists, plastic surgeons and dieticians descend on the street for a year or so and attempt to turn its baffled citizens into dynamic, glamorous 'entrepreneurs'.  The series would end with a lingering set of before and after shots, displaying the success of neoliberal self-improvement.  And the final shot would simply be of the redeemed street and its entire cast of characters, all out in business attire, each raising a glass of champagne to the camera.  Big smiles.  Doing Britain, and Iain Duncan Smith, proud.