- Category: Analysis
- Published on Tuesday, 21 October 2014
- Written by Richard Atkinson
- Some arguments about the UK government's welfare reform programme
- 1. They are not trying (very hard) to reduce welfare expenditure
- 2. They do not want, at all, to reduce welfare dependency
- 3. They are not interested in getting people into work...
- 4. ... because they don't know what to do with people when they are working
- 5. They are not, exactly, aiming to abolish the welfare state
- 6. … not least because the present welfare state is their own, neoliberal, creation
- 7. They are converting the DWP into a punitive arm of the state
- 8. They are looking to create a low waged, unskilled, precarious workforce
- 9. They are enforcing a patriarchal discipline on women and families by means testing
- 10. They are winning ...
- 11. ... and Universal Credit will seal their victory for a generation
- 12. They have a problem with pensioners, which they have yet to sort out
- 13. Labour are as deeply committed to these aims as the Tories
- 14. Why it’s Welfare, not Social Security
- 15. Why it’s back to 1601 not 1834
- 16. No-one asked for welfare
- 17. Against welfare: for class independence
- ADDENDUM - On proposals for an Unconditional Basic Income.
- All Pages
10. They are winning ...
We all knew bad things were approaching after the 2010 election, that Austerity was coming. Others have written about the false choices being posed by all the parties then and about the gradual rise to dominance, the dominance of commonsense, of a set of neoliberal ideas over the preceding decades. But the particular form austerity took was not preordained. That welfare reform took centre stage from the beginning, from the first wave of welfare cuts announced in the June 2010 emergency budget, was a deliberate political choice by the Tories. They knew where they would be strongest, they knew that cuts to welfare would receive no effective opposition. And they were right. They were able to tap into deep reserves of resentment, confusion and deliberately created ignorance and shift, massively, the terms of public debate and perception. Let no-one, inhabiting an oppositional environment, doubt how much ideological damage has been done. They have been able to make cuts in provision previously thought impossible. Most of the cuts were announced in 2010 and although their consequences, as they came into effect, were both predictable and predicted, a stunned silence was the response where opposition might have been expected.
An inadequate way of understanding the ideological distinctions now being drawn by neoliberalism is to refer back to the age old distinction between deserving and undeserving poor. This is not the current proposition. While the theoretical possibility of deserving poverty is still allowed for, the notion of a deserving benefit claimant is not. Only pensioners are exempt from this rule, for now. Again and again, in the poverty porn shows, in newspaper exposes, it is the fact of claiming benefit that is damning, even, in fact characteristically, for people who are in work. This is not a mistake or misunderstanding. The point is to demean and stigmatise receipt of welfare, whatever the reason for it, and thereby to create a new pauperism, not so much for its own sake, but as at once a standing threat, and a despised and feared minority for everyone else.
The left, including the revolutionary left, has paid little or no attention to the emerging new role for welfare outlined here. No-one theorised the significance of the in-work benefits introduced under Thatcher in dampening down traditional forms of class struggle, other than routinely to deprecate them as a subsidy for low paying businesses. We deplored the piecemeal destruction of social security and its replacement by means testing but offered no analysis of the reasons for, or consequences of, this consistent shift towards greater state control of claimant’s lives. We have been content very largely to rely on a modestly critical account of the achievements of 1948, at most trying to extend or liberalise that settlement - not least perhaps because much of the left has made its home in the welfare institutions that have grown up since 1948. And when opposition has been expressed it has usually been in terms of ‘unfairness’, of attacks on the ‘vulnerable’ and ‘needy’; terms which the Tories were equally happy to use (and reverse the meaning of by inserting ‘genuinely’ or ‘the most’ in front of them). We should ask ourselves before using such words whether we would be happy to apply them to ourselves - as distinct from frank and respectable words like ‘poor’ and ‘claimant’. The alternative language of asserted ‘rights’ and entitlements was better but won equally little purchase. We might have done better to take seriously the idea of benefit dependency as something to be resisted.
When resistance did emerge - first in the student riots of 2010, then in the campaigns against ATOS and the bedroom tax - it came about largely outside the existing structures of the Left (there were no Trudges Against ATOS from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square). The small victories that resulted give us some space not just to work out how to resist further cuts to welfare, which will come whichever party of capital is in power, but also to ask, not so much how to win the war on welfare, rather what a victory for our side would even look like.