Monday, February 10, 2014

Disciplining the disabled.

If you can pick up a coin in front of an Atos 'health professional', you're fit for work.  
 
Atos is incentivised and pressured to declare the people it assesses 'fit for work'.  And it does so with striking consistency, regardless of how severely disabled or ill people are.  In the earliest review of statistics back in 2009, it was discovered that of 189,800 assessed, 130,500 were found fit for work.  Four in ten people diagnosed with seriously debilitating illnesses such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's have been excluded from disability benefits and forced to seek the meaner employment support allowance.  Cancer patients have been forced to attend 'back-to-work' interviews.

One could go on and on, but by now the injustices of Atos and the disability benefit cuts have been done to death.  The question is, what is all this for?  It is not a medical procedure.  The criteria are not medically informed. 
 
Nor do I believe it is primarily about penny pinching.  Certainly, the sums spent on disability benefits are not insignificant.  The UK budget last year was £694bn.  Of a total welfare budget of £159bn, Disabled Living Allowance amounts to £12.57bn a year, while incapacity benefit amounts to less than £5bn.  Shifting a section of those claimants from incapacity benefits to employment support allowance will save some money, certainly.  But the government could just as easily recoup such sums by other expedients.  
 
Nor is it necessarily about reducing the volume of state activity.  The deployment of Atos, the intensive scrutiny, the constant interviews and reviews, may be outsourced - but ultimately that is just another form of state action, another manifestation of the interpenetration of state and capital particular to neoliberalism.  The same will be true of the entire Department of Work Pensions when they have privatised it.  So, what is really at stake here?  Why is this a priority?

There is a way of answering this question that stresses the moral individualism of neoliberal capitalism, the punitive logic of 'the market', and so on.  Hence, analysts speak of: i) the marketisation of disability provision; ii) moral conditionality of provision, iii) the dichotomy between the needy recipients and those who must be disciplined back to work.  This is okay, but it's quite descriptive.  I think a potentially more productive way into this subject is via the neoliberal concept of ‘human capital’.  The idea that far from being coherent ‘individuals’, we are basically assemblages of different forms of ‘capital’ (physical, cognitive, erotic, etc), which vary between individuals.  These physical or mental assets are seen as forms of capital to the extent that they can be put into circulation to yield an income stream.

'Human capital development', as a supply-side instrument for boosting 'employability', has been a central aspect of UK government employment policy for some time.  This might take the form of, for example, using cognitive behaviour therapy and other techniques to modify and improve the employability of residents in high-unemployment areas.

Now, the government’s policy on disability benefits has always been framed in terms of ‘helping people back into work’, which is seen as more dignified and so on.  Underlying this is the view that disabled people get trapped in a cycle of non-accumulation of human capital because they are locked out of the labour market, and thus can’t get adequate training or education.  The task, therefore, is to find a political technology that can lever them out of this rut and into a working situation, where every incentive compels them to maximise their human capital.  This will, of course, make them find ways to become 'employable' and, so the logic goes, lead to improved income and life chances.

The Atos critera are about doing exactly this.  The use of so-called ‘health professionals’ to drive people off the welfare rolls has caused great consternation.  But it is important to make sense of what these   They are a disciplinary technique designed to disseminate the ‘entrepreneurial’ ethic among the poorest.  
 
And things like this work.  They produce subjectivities that have lasting and politically significant effects.  Consider this piece by John Harris.  Look at the statistics on attitudes to welfare, and how they have changed over the generations.  Note the anecdotes, the interview material.  Not only do people on low incomes blame people on welfare for not having more get-up-and-go, more drive, more will to get out there and make money; people on welfare blame themselves!  
 
If this is effective, it will not be long before you have interviews with disabled or sick employees, who are absurdly working through cancer, or multiple sclerosis, or serious physical pain or impairments.  And they will say of the majority who remain on the increasingly miserly benefits system: “I did it for myself, I don’t see why I have to support a bunch of people who want to lay about on benefits”.