I went with some friends to see I, Daniel Blake last night. It’s many years since I last saw a film, and I was wondering whether I would be bored.
Bored I was, as we sat through all the prior adverts. My eyes closed. I was just nodding off when I was startled by some very familiar words.
I won’t tell you what happens in the film, but I will tell you that the very first words are an interview between a benefit claimant and an assessor. What startled me was the fact that they were almost exactly the same words as my own interview on an equivalent occasion a few years ago. To me, that experience was so traumatic that hearing the words again gave me a momentary panic.
What was traumatic about it? I was used to being respected as a local clergyman. Suddenly I found myself being treated as an unjustified burden on society. It was as though my nose was deliberately being rubbed in the dirt. Don’t let anyone tell you the film doesn’t tell it the way it is. It does.
Why do the staff at these offices behave like that? I think there are two main reasons. One is the ‘divide and rule’ principle. They are obliged to meet their targets, and that usually means saying no to a quota of desperate people. They have a job, and if they lose it they may well end up being claimants themselves. The nastier they are to the claimants, the nastier it would be to end up as one of them. It was summed up in George Osborne’s slogan about ‘workers and shirkers’. Keep them down by setting one half against the other half. Rule by fear. If everybody is terrified of offending the person above them, you can get them to do what they would have refused to do in happier times. This is how Hitler and Stalin maintained their grip on power. The claimants may be terrified, but so are the assessors and interviewers.
The second reason is the checklist. Most of the interviewing is done by people with strict instructions. They are not to deviate from the script. If the next question has already been answered, it must still be asked. I remember my astonishment, at more than one interview, when I asked ‘Why are you asking me these questions? I have already answered them, in the form you told me to fill in’. The invariable reply was ‘Just answer the question.’
The reason for the strictness about the checklist is clear. Nearly all human beings, when faced with another person who is absolutely desperate, wants to help. Their targets mean they are being paid to avoid helping whenever possible. So just as soldiers have to undergo training to kill without vomiting, the staff at these offices have to learn not to care: to behave as though they were nothing but a webpage filling itself in. They are far from being the only people driven to sell their consciences for money in this economics-driven culture.
The other main player in the tragedy is the Government. They have real power, but in a sense they are trapped too – in their ideologies. Each of them has campaigned for decades on their preferred policies. However disastrous those policies have proved it would be too big an ask to admit that they were wrong, let alone that opposition policies were better.
It seems to me that the British Government’s response to the disaster of its welfare policies is unique. I cannot think of any parallel. At Hillsborough the Government refused for decades to admit the truth, and at Orgreave they still do; but in those cases only a small number of people were present at the event and the Government had to decide whose reports to believe. The disasters we have inflicted on Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria are publicly handled in the usual manner of warmaking governments: by careful selection of the information available to the home population and by kicking up a fuss about the damage done by others. What makes their response to the benefits disaster so different is that all the information is freely available. Every town has its food bank; ten years ago, who foresaw this? Poverty-induced illness, starvation and homelessness have shot up. Up and down the country churches and charities with the highest reputations have submitted reports to the Government and been ignored. Instead, with next Monday’s changes things will get even worse for many of the poorest.
Despite all this the Government’s official response is to deny that any of it is happening. Here’s part of the report on Monday’s House of Commons debate:
Philip Hollobone, Conservative, Kettering:
My constituents in Kettering want to know whether the Secretary of State thinks that the film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is an accurate portrayal of the benefits system. If it is, do the changes he has announced in the Green Paper address the problems raised? If it is not, what are the inaccuracies?
Damian Green, The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions:
I have not seen the film yet but have seen quite a lot of trailers. [Interruption.] I would point out to my hon. Friend and the hon. Lady on the Opposition Bench who is chuntering from a sedentary position that it is a work of fiction and not a documentary. It bears no relation to the modern benefits system. As I understand it, it is monstrously unfair to jobcentre staff, who are hugely conscientious people doing a job, sometimes in difficult conditions, and doing it very well indeed.
Iain Duncan Smith had more to say:
The one area I just had criticism of really was his portrayal of the jobcentre staff.
I just thought it was unfair. I mean I have travelled round so many jobcentres talked to so many of them. The vast, vast, vast majority … are there to work to help people sort themselves out. They often go through their CVs with them.
Julian Todd, a local colleague, has made the obvious response:
The awesome idea that a Cabinet minister touring round offices of low level state employees with his massive entourage of suits is going to see anything remotely resembling the truth takes my breath away.
Of course it is possible that one or another government minister really does not know what is happening, if they work hard at not knowing – and this would be a betrayal of responsibility – but for the whole Government not to know is just not credible.
Quite clearly they are being dishonest. Such large-scale dishonesty has only recently become possible, with the almost complete control of the mass media by the Government; one only has to ask why it is left to Ken Loach, rather than the BBC or the Guardian, to draw attention to the situation.
So why are Government ministers so determined to mislead us? I think we need to understand their priorities. We seem to be heading for increasing conflict between two very different philosophies of life, two opposed beliefs about how we humans can live at our best.
Both sides generally accept that we evolved over long periods of time. Like all living species, we are still around because at every stage of our history there were enough people capable of doing the essential work to keep us going. For most of our history the work was done by instinct. Later, reason and reflection were superimposed on our instincts. Then it became possible for social and moral pressures to arise. Eventually, economic pressures too.
Throughout this history the important thing was that enough people did the work. This still remains the case. At any one time a large proportion of the population are too young, old or ill to share the work. In any case work does not have to be defined precisely. Instinctively, some people enjoy cooking, some enjoy looking after children, some enjoy growing food – because without these instincts we wouldn’t have survived.
From this point on we can go two ways. If we take a positive stance towards the circumstances of life, we will be inclined to accept them as they are. We will look after our environment and accept the whole range of different personalities and abilities as part of life’s richness. It doesn’t mean we won’t invent any new technologies, but it does mean there is no driving need to: our basic attitude to the forces maintaining the universe is to trust them. Equality and diversity are characteristic principles: we are all of equal value in principle, even though some do more work than others.
If, on the other hand, we take a negative stance towards the circumstances of life, other options open up. There have been religious versions of it, but its most common form today is the secular principle that life as we know it is the product of unthinking, unintending forces of nature. We, although we are products of these forces, are capable of thinking things through and working out better ways of living. Everything we dislike about our condition raises the question: can we change things to do better?
Western culture is now dominated by two such proposals: new technologies and economic growth. Earlier proponents thought of them as limited projects: when we have improved the conditions of life to our satisfaction, the problem will be solved. Now, however, the limits are off: enthusiasts for new technologies proclaim endless artificialisation of life as we move further and further away from the simpler lifestyles of our ancestors, and in much the same way the dominant economic goal is never-ending increases in wealth. This is what politicians mean by terms like ‘getting the economy moving again’ and ‘solving our economic problems’.
This second conception of our condition produces radically different accounts of the purpose of human life. Gone is equality: the more you contribute to the project the more valuable you are. Unemployed people dependent on benefits are more of a hindrance than a help. We (or ‘the economy’) would be better off if they did not exist at all. Gone, also, is diversity. Instead of innumerable lifestyles all contributing in their different ways to a rich and complex community, the lifestyles that contribute to the project are valuable and the ones that do not are nuisances getting in the way. We would be better off without them.
If you have followed me this far you will probably think I’m wildly exaggerating the wickedness of the Government, making its policies sound comparable to the Fascist dictators of the 1930s. Unfortunately I’m being true to published Government statements of policy. Next Monday’s turn of the screw is explained by a document by the Department for Work and Pensions published in August this year, and makes no bones about its intentions. The following quotations are from Page 6:
Reducing the benefit cap to £20,000 will... help achieve fiscal stability alongside increasing fairness between claimants and taxpayers (around 4 in 10 working households will still have earnings below this lower level)...
This change has an immediate impact on the financial incentives to move into work. Movement into work will result in them increasing their income rather than face a reduction, or a lower entitlement, in the future. Therefore, households will have to face similar choices faced by working families.
The practical difficulties are easy enough to spot. It is assuming – absurdly – that people on benefits could at any time accept paid employment, as though the jobs were freely available. Lowering benefits to match declining pay rates is of course one side of a race to the bottom; as benefits decline employers will be free to reduce pay rates even further, regardless of any official ‘living wage’.
But the point I wish to stress here is the philosophical one: the presupposition that everybody capable of doing so ought to be in ‘work’. This is how the project of maximising the economy operates. To the DWP, moreover, ‘work’ does not mean doing something helpful or contributing to society; it only means doing something – anything – that somebody else is willing to pay you for. It means that everybody of any use ought to be doing things that rich people want done.
We have here two radically different philosophies of life. One starts with a positive view of the human condition. It seeks to make the most of it, but not to make significant alterations to it. The amount of time needing to be spent on work is limited. The other starts with a negative view of the human condition, and therefore seeks to make substantial changes. It needs every hand on deck working as hard as possible. The good things people naturally do for each other without expecting any payment are not measured by government statisticians and are therefore not counted as contributions to the project.