Benefit sanctions and the punitive politics of austerity

by Adam Standring

In his latest film, I, Daniel Blake, British filmmaker and social justice campaigner Ken Loach turned his ire on the culture and practice of the British welfare system.  It is a film which, despite the glimpses of humour and solidarity, highlights the arbitrary, cruel and often absurdly Kafkaesque nature of the practice of modern British austerity policies.  The absurdity of the situation arrives in the opening scene when the titular character, a man who has worked his entire life but due to a heart attack has been advised by his doctor that he can no longer do so, is forced to perform a variety of demeaning tests and answer seemingly pointless questions in order that his ability to work can be evaluated by a medically unqualified public servant.  Failure to comply with the strict rules, as demonstrated by the young, single mother, who misses her set appointment time, results in the sanctioning of benefits and can push people already living a precarious existence into increased hardship.

The film has deservedly received plaudits and awards for its honest and unflinching portrayal of the impact of austerity policies on British life in the margins, a view which is rarely presented for public consumption without forming part of a wider discourse which demonizes the working class as ‘undeserving, feckless and lazy’. This view was epitomized in the way the Channel 4 documentary series Benefits Street was discussed in the tabloid media. I, Daniel Blake presents a vision of welfare Britain that is so far from that observed and understood by the media, and much of the public at large, that some reviews explicitly doubted the truth of the system it seeks to depict. Claims of, ‘it couldn’t happen here’, have been met by reports of numerous cases in which the I, Daniel Blake story looks, if anything, to have been understated.

A newly published report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has heaped further criticism, albeit this time officially sanctioned governmental criticism, on the current welfare system.  Claims from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), and the ministers responsible for the system, that sanctions provide a deterrent for the lazy and help focus the motivations of jobseekers to find employment, have been found to be baseless.  Perhaps even more damning, the DWP has been shown to be dismissive of, even resistant to, analysing either the true economic impact of their own policies or the resultant health and social consequences.

All this will come as no surprise to those who have long argued that austerity is a political project, extending far beyond the economic rationale used by politicians to justify its implementation.  Will Davies, in a recent article in New Left Review, makes just this point, “what is unclear, as with austerity measures or benefit sanctions, is what such measures are seeking to achieve. Judged against most standards of orthodox economic evaluation, they are self-destructive.”  Such wilfully self-destructive policies represent, in Davies’ terms, a shift towards a new phase of neoliberalism – “punitive neoliberalism” – in which the continued marginalization of the most precarious in a society (be it the unemployed, the disabled or, increasingly, ethnic and religious minorities) becomes part of the ritualized reaffirmation of a status quo, the practice of a system devoid of new ideas and yet desperate to avoid critique.  The role of the individual in such a system is simply to function as a unit of “human capital” or “entrepreneur of the self”, either choosing to be motivated towards a (economically) productive yet more precarious existence or face the penalties of increased economic marginalization and social stigmatization.

How depressed should this make us? The diagnosis for both austerity and neoliberalism points towards an uncertain future.  While some commentators are eager to highlight the resilience of these systems, both in terms of their ability to “fail forward”, as Jamie Peck puts it, or, as Will Davies argues, their imperviousness to critique.  However, as the façade of the economic justification for austerity becomes weaker and is more regularly and loudly challenged, even by its previous proponents such as the European Commission and the IMF, and the “conscious cruelty of austerity” more regularly exposed, then the discursive and political space for contestation becomes that much bigger.

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